On Wednesday 4th August 2020, at around 6pm (Beirut time), two explosions occurred at the Port of Beirut causing widespread casualties and material damage. As of 12th of August, 220 have people lost their lives, over 100 remain missing, and more than 5000 people are injured. Emerging data suggests that men are overrepresented amongst the dead (a UN Women estimate suggests that approximately 63% of the deceased are male), likely due to the fact that they served as the majority of port workers and day labourers/migrant workers around the port area. Based on the estimates from the government, more than 300,000 people have lost their homes – with 50,000 housing units affected.
Local NGOs and CSOs, including various local women-focused NGOs have mobilized, supporting search, rescue and cleanup efforts, and the provision of emergency support – medical, food, cash, shelter and mental health support.
The blast has caused damages as far as 20 km from the port, destroying and damaging businesses, houses, hospitals, and schools. The most affected areas are Gemmayzeh, Karantina, Mar Mikhael, Jetaoui, Marfaa Karm El Zeitouni, Downtown and Bourj Hammoud. Out of these Karantina, Bourj Hammound, Marfaa and Karm El Zeitouni are the most in need. A large number of people have lost their homes and livelihoods, adding to the compounded crises that Lebanon has been experiencing since October 2019, namely, the financial and economic crisis followed by the COVID-19 crisis in March 2020. Moreover, WHO has stated that 50% of Beirut’s hospitals are out of service while the country witnesses historically high COVID-19 cases. Shortages in foreign currency, glass and other needed materials will hinder reconstruction, and the destruction of the port will challenge medical and food imports.
Food prices have been rising steadily due to Lebanon’s economic crisis, which – with COVID-19, collides and deepens the impact of the explosion. Food prices are likely to continue to raise amidst the ongoing economic and political crisis, supply chain disruptions and the loss of up to 85% of the country’s cereal reserves. The food security of the poorest households and of those who had just enough to provide for their families will be increasingly threatened; multiple assessments in recent years have shown food security higher amongst female headed households and such gender inequality around food insecurity will need to be monitored closely.
Beyond the human tragedy, the economic impact of the explosion is expected to be large. It is expected to consist of (1) significant physical damage to the Port, as well as residential and commercial areas; (2) loss of economic activity due to the damages; (3) trade disruptions resulting in an increase in transactions costs of external trade and (4) loss of fiscal revenues. The Port of Beirut, significantly affected by the explosion, accounts for about 68 percent of the country’s trade in goods (imports plus exports).
In addition, the explosion has generated a new wave of protests across the country and on Sunday, August 9th, the Cabinet resigned – remaining on as a caretaker government.
To support Lebanon to recover from these multiple shocks, a nexus approach is critical – one that brings together humanitarian, development and peace and security work – targeting both short term relief and longer-term recovery.
Rationale: Why prioritise gender issues in the Beirut response?
In Lebanon, women are more likely to be food insecure, more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be in public school (rather than private school), more likely to be a survivor of gender-based violence, more likely to not have legal residence (if you are a refugee), and more likely to not have access to adequate shelter (If you are the head of a household). Taken in its totality, this makes women less resilient to shocks – they are less likely to have savings, a bank account, extensive social network beyond their family and access to urgent social protection – all things critical in enabling individuals and families to respond to disasters such as the Beirut blast.
An initial assessment undertaken by ACTED states that women, the elderly and people with specific needs (chronically ill, persons with disability, elderly headed households) are identified as the most in need of protection assistance across impacted locations.
In the immediate term, women face heightened risks in accessing humanitarian assistance. Displacement, overcrowed temporary shelters, lack of privacy, lack of lighting, limited and unsegregated wash facilities, and other factors will contribute to violence against women and hinder women’s access to necessary services. Moreover, in a country where in 2019 23% of women stated that they had either experienced ‘sextortion’ (coerced sex in exchange for public services) or knew someone who had, the threats of exploitation and abuse are severe, especially in light of increasing economic vulnerabilities. This will be particularly true for female headed households and domestic workers, and will be exacerbated by law enforcement mechanisms being overwhelmed by the disaster.
Furthermore, while the Beirut explosion is taking place against a backdrop of deep economic crisis, described by experts as the worst in Lebanon’s recent history, is it also happening within a context of extreme structural gender inequalities. Lebanon has one of the highest overall gender gaps in the world (ranking 145 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap report 2020), and amongst the lowest global rates of women’s labor market participation, hovering at 29% for women and 76% for men. Already before the explosion, the economic contraction on women’s overall employment in Lebanon was estimated by UN Women to result in a 14-19% reduction in women’s employment. In the current situation this number will most likely go up.
As the economy suffers across the country as a result of the explosion, the increase in food insecurity and decrease in employment opportunities will affect women the disproportionately, given that women are the most food insecure in Lebanon (among both refugees and those with Lebanese nationality) and the already starkly low numbers of women in Lebanon’s economy. Greater economic vulnerability in turn risks precipitating increases in violence against women within the household, as seen during the COVID-19 lockdown, where one assessment found that up to 54% of respondents have observed an increase of harassment, violence or abuse against other women and girls in their household or their communities.
Finally, progress made against gender equality gains are likely to be threatened and undermined by the economic crisis, and while the political crisis equally poses a number of challenges, it also represents an opportunity for feminist and women’s rights actors to be leveraged.
It is important to note that although women are highly vulnerable to disasters, they are not a homogeneous group. Intersectional factors such as age, marital status, sexual orientation and disability often exacerbate these vulnerabilities. Previous evidence from disasters and crises demonstrate that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer persons (LGBTIQ+) face increased vulnerability, particular risks and discrimination during times of crisis and in crisis aftermaths. In addition, migrant domestic workers, people living without identification documents as well as refugees are particularly vulnerable. These inequalities have and will continue to shape how women have experienced the explosion and its impacts but will also affect their capacity to access and benefit from the humanitarian response. This includes access to shelter, water, food, nutrition, health, as well as information and restored livelihoods.
Humanitarian responses often miss opportunities to transform gender relations through the leadership and empowerment of women and girls in their role as decision makers, first responders and economic actors — forgetting the fact that these are key to effective crisis response and to building community’s resilience for future shocks.
It is therefore crucial to make sure that the response to the explosion as well as longer term recovery work takes into consideration to the needs of women and girls and ensures that women are included and benefit from in the response both as decision-makers, active participants in the design and implementation, as well as recipients.