Women suffer trauma after the Beirut blast as economic hardship puts them at risk of exploitation
By Ban Barkawi
AMMAN, Sept 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Almost six weeks after the Beirut port blast nearly blinded her in one eye, Kawthar Halabi has been unable to return to work as she is still having fragments of glass picked out of her flesh.
After eight days in hospital, more than 50 stitches, eye surgery and with lingering trauma, the 31-year-old mother has been unable to return to her job at a chocolate factory, with money worries compounding those about her health.
"I'm still going to doctors. I couldn't go back to work and then keep taking time off every couple of days so I had to take a leave of absence," said Halabi, who was visiting her sister on Aug. 4 when the windows shattered, knocking her unconscious.
"I wake up at night and cry in despair over the state of our country and all we lost," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As Lebanon reels from the impact of the blast that killed 200 people, injured thousands, forced some 250,000 from their homes and left countless without work, campaigners warn that women face some of the heaviest financial and health burdens.
A charter signed by more than 40 civil society groups in Lebanon called for the humanitarian response to focus on women's needs, as many of those living in parts of Beirut hit by the blast were female refugees, migrants, elderly or unemployed.
Before the explosion, Lebanon was already grappling with its worst economic crisis in recent history, worsening poverty and decades of state corruption and mismanagement.
"Considering the economic impact of the explosion and the ongoing deep economic crisis, the financial situation of women will most likely worsen with many losing their businesses," said the charter, calling for a focus on gender in the aid response.
"This is especially critical for women-headed households, migrant domestic workers and women with disabilities."
The governmental National Commission for Lebanese Women said it was working with civil society groups using a "gendered approach" to support health services for women and children and help women resume work.
"The damage... affected various segments of society and the response to the crisis on the part of the Lebanese state as well as civil society organisations reached all these segments without discrimination," it said in a statement.
Women will be heavily affected by the blast as they are less likely than men to have enough food, savings, a bank account, a job, legal residence or social networks beyond their families, according to the United Nations agency UN Women.
Displaced women also face greater risks of violence living in overcrowded shelters, without privacy or lighting, it said.
Volunteers and women's groups have been providing women with shelter, cash and hygiene kits but the government has not properly prioritised their needs, said Aliaa Awada, co-director of Fe-Male, one of the charter signatories.
"Not all women have families to support them right now, not all can afford to rent homes or stay in a safe place," said Awada, adding that prices have skyrocketed in the past year, leaving many unable to afford basics like sanitary pads.
"All the psychological impact they endured because of the Beirut explosion, whether they lost their children or their homes or their income, is difficult to overcome."
Lebanon already had one of the world's lowest rates of women in the workforce, with less than one in three in paid employment, according to UN Women, which predicts this will fall sharply due to the economic crisis and blast.
Halabi has been putting on a brave face and trying to stay positive to cope with the trauma.
"I look at myself and think I'm relatively much better than others," she said.
"But that doesn't mean we haven't been affected."
(Reporting by Ban Barkawi @banbarkawi; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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