By César Chelala
NEW YORK: Although domestic violence is under-recognized and under-reported, it is also one of the most significant epidemics in the Arab countries today. It is gender violence, manifested essentially as violence against women. This kind of violence occurs in practically all countries in the region and affects families of all backgrounds, religions and social spheres. It affects not only families but societies as a whole.
Although women in the Arab countries have experienced significant progress in recent times, the idea that women should be subordinate to men in the household and in society still persists. Because men consider themselves the main breadwinners, they think that they have the right to maintain order at home by using violence.
Worldwide, violence is as common a cause of death and disability as cancer among women of reproductive age. It is also a greater cause of ill health than traffic accidents and malaria put together. Public health experts increasingly consider violence against women a public health issue, one requiring a public health approach.
Various cultural, economic and social factors, including shame and fear of retaliation from their partners, contribute to women’s reluctance to denounce these acts. The lack of effective judicial response to their accusations contributes to their discouragement.
The experience of violence makes women more susceptible to a variety of health problems such as depression, suicide, and alcohol and drug abuse. Sexual violence increases women’s risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including VIH/AIDS (through forced sexual relations or because of the difficulty in persuading men to use condoms). It may also lead to various gynecological problems.
The World Organization Against Torture has expressed its concern regarding the high levels of violence against women worldwide. Although provisions related to domestic violence are included in several national policies and laws, there are difficulties in implementing them. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “nearly half of women who die due to homicide are killed by their current or former husbands or boyfriends.”
Studies carried out in the Arab world show that 70 percent of violence occurs in big cities, and that in almost 80 percent of cases those responsible are the heads of families, such as fathers or eldest brothers. Both fathers and eldest brothers, in most cases, assert their right to punish their wives and children in any way they see appropriate.
In recent years, there has been some progress regarding this issue. Tunisia, for example, continues to raise the bar for Arab women’s rights in the 21st century. In 1993, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who succeeded Habib Bourguiba as president of the country, improved the Code of Personal Status to give more rights to women. Article 207 in the penal code reducing the penalties for honor crimes was also abolished.
In Lebanon, there are no statistics about domestic violence, a subject that still remains a taboo in Lebanese society. In 2009, however, a photographer and women’s rights activist, Dalia Khamissy has produced, with nine other women, an exhibition of photographs, “Behind the Doors: Through the Eyes of Women Survivors of Violence,” which has served to highlight the problem in the country.
In 2009, the second Arab Regional Conference for Family Protection took place in Jordan. It was held under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania, chairperson of the National Council for Family Affairs (NCFA). The conference formulated a unified strategy for safeguarding families from domestic violence, with the attendance of family experts and sociologists from the Arab world.
In Morocco, the Union of Women’s Action (UAF) has organized forums to raise public awareness of violence against women, and to lobby local groups to protect victimized women. At the same time, counseling centers have been set up to allow women to talk about their problem and to receive help. In Egypt, where the phenomenon is pervasive in society, Beit Hawa (The House of Eve) has been founded as the first comprehensive women’s shelter in Egypt and the Arab world.
But more work has to be done if this epidemic of violence is going to be controlled. Government and community leaders should spearhead an effort to create a culture of openness and support to eliminate the stigma associated with this situation.
Furthermore, it is necessary not only to enact but also to enforce legislation that criminalizes all forms of violence against women, including marital rape. Laws should be followed up with plans for specific national action.
The 2009 report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) stated that women’s lack of social participation “is primarily attributable to the existence of discriminatory laws, failure to implement the non-discriminatory legislation that does exist, and a lack of awareness by women of their rights in such matters.”
There cannot be true development in the Arab world without women’s progress and the recognition of their rights. As the last Human Development Report stated, “The rise of Arab women is in fact a prerequisite for an Arab renaissance and causally linked to the fate of the Arab world and its achievement of human development.”
César Chelala, MD, PhD, is an international public health consultant and the author of the Pan American Health Organization publication Violence in the Americas.