The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on across the US and the world. Yet significant questions remain, not only about finding a cure, but about finding relief from the problems exacerbated by the reaction to COVID. We know lockdowns have resulted in serious negative consequences — jobs lost, marriages destroyed, children denied valuable socialization and education. But for some, fear of the disease pales before the fear of the person with whom they’re trapped at home. Ultimately, this pandemic has led to another — one of increased rates of domestic abuse.
Deemed a “shadow pandemic” by the United Nations, every subset of violence against women and children has increased since the start of stay-at-home orders and quarantine restrictions. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres even tweeted out an urgent call for “all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.”
This issue has been well documented in the United States. But around much of the Middle East, domestic violence remains socially entrenched. Where it is not, resources are few and now further between. Justice is almost impossible. Jordan, which had over 11,000 cases of domestic abuse reported last year, saw a 33 percent increase in reports during the lockdown. With curfews, limited operating hours of healthcare and emergency services, closure of courts for prosecution, and increased restrictions on personal agency and interaction with the outside world, the situation only becomes more dismal. And Jordan is not alone.
In Tunisia, COVID-related curfews led to a five-fold increase in violence against women. And the same problem faces women across the Middle East. Iran, a country with a plague of so-called honor killings and government-tolerated domestic violence, has suffered three waves of COVID, with a commensurate increase in violence towards women. But the world does not need to accept this horror as an inevitable outgrowth of lockdowns and COVID-mitigation.
Many insist that imposing moral standards upon other countries is wrong, as other cultures have ideals different from our own. But when those ideals perpetuate horrifying abuse — some leading to the violent deaths of women — where do we draw the line? And what can be done for women who are suffering — and dying — in this pandemic within a pandemic? Alleviating one nightmare is not — and must not be — in opposition to the mitigation of the other.
As Jordan’s “single largest provider of bilateral assistance,” the US — through taxpayer dollars — provides economic, security, and now COVID-focused medical assistance to the country. That immense aid should first and foremost require that the country receiving it agree to live up to the UN’s own declaration of human rights — most importantly, the right to life. Elsewhere across the region, the United States provides substantial aid. Where it does not, the United Nations has filled the gap. Yet neither the US nor the UN have prioritized this vital problem, nor have they used the leverage — both moral and financial — available to fuel reform.
America can’t fix the world, but we can help by setting international standards, at the very least in countries to which we provide economic aid and sell arms — countries like Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. And as the number one funder of the United Nations, we can start insisting on results there, too. American taxpayers don’t need to subsidize abuse. Of course, we can’t fix everything, but we can — especially at this critical moment — do much, much more for those in need.
This article first appeared in 2020 on the AEI Ideas blog.