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Gender-Based Violence in Jordan

Updated: May 21, 2020

A pandemic of its own

by Huda Al Zoubi

Artwork produced by Jordanian and Syrian refugee women from local communities as part of a workshop organized by SIGI, in which participants were asked to express what violence means to them. Fiona Roever for Solidarity is Global Institute (SIGI), Amman, Jordan, 2019

Laila (name changed to protect her privacy), a 24-year-old Jordanian woman, received an offer to work as a homecare nurse. She would have to look after an elderly woman and could bring her infant child with her. Laila gladly accepted the offer. Two weeks into Jordan’s strict lockdown, imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19, she was bitterly in need of money.

Laila’s new employer lived far from her home, about 45 minutes by car. However, as public transportation was banned, she had to go on foot, carrying her baby along. In the hot and dry spring weather, under the ruthless sun, she was walking next to the main road for several hours, when the child started to show signs of severe dehydration and shortness of breath.

Terrified, Laila screamed for help. Her baby was suffocating. A few cars passed by, but none stopped, as they were not allowed to take passengers. Eventually, someone called an ambulance and took Laila and her baby to the hospital.

Laila’s hardships did not begin with the pandemic. She was previously placed under administrative detention due to a complaint from her abusive father. After Laila’s divorce, her father regained guardianship over her. Tyrannical, he was constantly arguing about money, insisting that Laila should give him the salary she earned as a domestic worker.

Controlling her every step, he was utterly enraged when he suspected Laila of having a new romantic interest. He filed a complaint to the governor, accusing his daughter of being in an illegal, extra-marital relationship. Laila was arrested and spent six months in prison without a trial.

Women rights’ organizations in Jordan provide psychological and social support to detained women and offer mediation with their families. Our organization first appealed to Laila’s father, and then to the governor, pleading for her release. The governor summoned Laila’s father to sign the agreement of her release.

Finally, he yielded. After her release, the organization rented a room for Laila and covered her basic expenses. She applied to several jobs, without success. As a divorced young mother living by herself, she was discriminated against, scorned, and harassed.

And so, when Laila finally received the offer to work as a homecare nurse, one thing led to another. She did not think twice and took on the long walk to her new employer, which ended in the hospital.

Laila’s story illustrates the various forms of violence that women in Jordan can be subjected to by both their families and the state, and how their situation may be aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the rather limited number of confirmed cases in Jordan – as of 13 May, only 576 individuals were diagnosed with the new virus in a population of nearly 10 million people –, rigorous measures have been adopted since the very beginning of the outbreak.

On 20 March, a national state of emergency was declared for an indefinite period of time, in which certain fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and movement, have been suspended.

A total curfew was implemented on 21 March. Even grocery shopping and pharmacy visits were forbidden. In the international media, Jordan’s COVID-19 regime was described as “one of the most stringent anti-corona regimes in the world”.

While the total curfew was reverted into a partial lockdown, allowing people to leave their houses during the day, several hundreds of people were arrested for not respecting the restrictions. Until this day, it is unclear how many people are still in prison.

Gender-Based Violence in Jordan amid Curfew

Fuelled by the psychological, social, and economic stress related to the curfew, violence against women and girls has been on the rise. The Department of Family Protection, for instance, reported a more than 30% increase of the cases of domestic violence in comparison to the last month before the confinement measures.

These results are in line with a survey conducted by the Centre of Strategic Studies of the University of Jordan. In which 34% of respondents reported violence in their families during the curfew, with verbal violence (17%) and psychological violence (9%) among the most prominent forms of reported abuse.

In addition to these statistics, my own work experience at the Solidarity Is Global Institute (SIGI), a women rights’ organization in Amman that provides support to victims of gender-based violence, gives a measure of the problem we are facing. From the beginning of the curfew until 25 April, we have registered over 600 requests for urgent support, including psychological, social, and health services, and financial aid. Numerous women, who reached out to us, suffered domestic violence or were expelled from their homes during the lockdown.

Gender Discrimination and Guardianship System

Even before the pandemic, gender-based violence has been an acute problem in Jordan. According to the Population and Family Health Survey (2017–2018) issued by the General Statistics Department, nearly 26 percent of married women between 15–49 years reported that they were subjected to physical, sexual or emotional violence by their partners.

Despite these alarming numbers, Jordan does not have specific legislation to combat gender-based violence. The “Protection Against Domestic Violence” Law adopted in 2008 covers violence between relatives and members of the same household; but it fails to address the issue of gender, and the questions of privacy and sensitivity associated to gender-based, and sexual violence.

Likewise, the Jordanian Constitution clearly states that all “Jordanians shall be equal before the Law” and that there should be “no discrimination among citizens regarding their rights and duties on grounds of race, language or religion”. However, discrimination based on gender, which is experienced everyday by countless Jordanians, is just not recognized.

The male guardianship system is at the core of the myriad of discriminations and inequalities faced by women in Jordan. Rooted in Sharia law, the system of male guardianship gives men—fathers, grandfathers, or brothers—responsibility for their female relatives, regardless of their age. If a woman gets married, this right is transferred to her husband.

The system implies that women need the permission of their male guardians in virtually all areas of their lives. For instance, they cannot make decisions related to work, travel, or real estate without their guardians’ approval.

Administrative Detention

By conferring men the legal power to control women, the guardianship system is often misused, favouring all kinds of abuse. If a woman does not obey her guardian, he has the right to file a complaint against her with the governor. Complaints often sanction behaviour considered by the guardian as morally dubious, like adultery and sexual relationship outside of marriage.

As Jordanian NGOs have documented, women have even been detained for leaving the house without their guardian’s permission. The administrative detention procedure is based on the Crime Prevention Law No. 7 of 1954, which has been used to detain individuals perceived as “dangerous” or “immoral” without prior trial for long periods of time.

According to official figures, 149 women were held in administrative detention as of October 2019, and 85 of which were arrested for extramarital sexual relations. As part of a recent study that I conducted in women’s rehabilitation centres, it was estimated that 48 percent of women in administrative detention in 2019 were accused of adultery, followed by begging (20 percent).

A number of detainees (approximately 12 percent) were incarcerated after their families complained about their absence from home. Complaints which, as interviews with the detainees revealed, were often motivated by the attempt of fleeing violence and abuse.

Administratively detained women represent another heavily affected group in the COVID-19 crisis. Disowned by their families, these women depend on the legal, psychological, social, and financial support provided by human rights and women rights’ organizations in Jordan.

Due to social distancing measures, most of these support services were discontinued, exacerbating the isolation and distress of detained women.

State Responses to Gender-Based violence

Jordan’s infamous Crime Prevention Law has also been (mis)used to detain victims of domestic violence. Instead of arresting the abuser(s), it is still a common practice to take women - who suffered or are threatened with violence - into protective custody in an ordinary prison, in order to protect them from the rage and revenge of the violent family members.

According to the findings of my latest study, 58 percent of the women held in rehabilitation centres in 2019 were under “protective custody”. Interviewees indicated that they preferred to be in administrative detention rather than returning home, as they feared for their lives.

Moreover, some women who suffered intimate partner violence said that they have filed formal complaints with the authorities but were forced to flee when their abusive partners learned about these complaints. Their abusive partners—and guardians—retaliated by filing their own complaints against them, which led to their detention.

As a response to the pressure of national and international human rights organizations, Jordanian authorities have created three state-run shelters for victims of domestic violence. These efforts are welcomed but remain insufficient. The new shelters fail to solve the problem, as their capacities are limited to one hundred beds in total, and all three are located in Amman, which makes them inaccessible for women from outside the capital.

While gender-based violence has been increasing during the COVID-19 crisis, the services available to victims of gender-based violence have been reduced. Many public institutions responsible for helping victims are closed, as their activities are not deemed essential during the health crisis.

Authorities were quick to transform hotels into quarantine centres, providing 5,000 rooms to accommodate Jordanians returning from abroad or foreign visitors. However, no additional resources were allocated to assist victims of gender-based violence, leaving them with no other option than going to an overcrowded shelter or being taken into protective custody—options women would only consider when in immediate fear for their lives.

In light of these poor options, and the perspective of spending months or years in prison, most women who suffer from violence in their homes endure in silence. We only learn about them when the foregoing psychological and physical abuse culminate in the homicide or suicide of the victim.

Civil Society during the Pandemic

Civil society organizations play a key role in providing assistance for victims of gender-based violence in Jordan. Their activities have also been disrupted by the lockdown. Our organization’s staff requested special permits to work on the field but did not receive a response until this date. There is no way of knowing how long we will have to wait to obtain these authorizations.

This means that our legal councillors and mediators, for instance, are currently unable to meet the women at their homes and mediate conflicts. Amid the lockdown, we were forced to suspend these lifesaving services, limiting them to keeping a telephone hotline, which enables us to receive reports and transfer the women to the competent authorities.

Despite the many limitations we are facing, Jordanian civil society organizations have been working tirelessly to persuade the government that fighting domestic violence requires exceptional and urgent action—action that is no less vital than the fight against COVID-19.

We have urged the government to use official channels to assert that it will not be lenient in cases of domestic violence, and have advocated for reopening the courts so that complaints can be filed by people harmed during the lockdown.

And for a long time, we here on the ground: have been developing and proposing ways to effectively combat violence against women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. We advocate for the strengthening emergency response services, the enhancement of health care systems, the expansion of the quantity and quality of social safety networks, the creation of inclusive online platforms, as well as pressuring the authorities to implement long-term strategies and solutions against gender-based violence.

The COVID-19 outbreak has yet again demonstrated the precarious state of women’s rights in Jordan. Besides the health crisis, we are confronted with crises in the institutional, social and cultural spheres, shaping the challenges and difficulties that women are facing on a daily basis. The pandemic has amplified these pre-existing crises for women, and the Jordanian society as a whole. But our problems do not start or end with COVID-19. Nor will our fight.

Dr. Huda Al Zoubi works as a Projects Development and Fundraising Manager at the Solidarity Is Global Institute (SIGI), Amman, Jordan.The Solidarity is Global Institute (SIGI—Jordan) is a non-governmental, non-profit and independent, participatory, feminist, developmental, and human rights-based organization established in 1998 by a group of Jordanian women in order to support other women, through their diverse expertise in law, reproductive health, education, human rights, and development.

This article first appeared on the rosa luxemburg stiftung Website. Reproduced with permission.

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