November 29, 2021
Lebanese society is falling short of ensuring that women's health needs are being met. With a rapidly deteriorating economy, access to health services and products is increasingly precarious. The United Nations reports that 82 percent of the Lebanese population lives in multidimensional poverty. This is the context women in Lebanon find themselves in today. Much has been discussed regarding shortages of goods due to lack of imports and high costs, but very little has been discussed about the essential goods and services that women lack access to.
Under the pandemic and economic crisis, "reproductive sexual health has been one of the primary victims," says Dr. Faysal El Kak, director of the Women Integrated Sexual Health (WISH) Program at AUBMC, who has witnessed the growing needs of women in Lebanon. Does it have to be this way? Subsidies and government-backed initiatives exist for various essential services, but he emphasizes the point that "policymakers do not see women's health goods and services as urgent or lifesaving." For this reason, women have found it increasingly difficult in Lebanon to access sanitary pads and birth control products, among other needed items.
The health repercussions go beyond Lebanon's inability to import the medicine and health products women need or the government's active decision to not subsidize these essential goods. They also affect the ability of women to access health services. In Dr. El Kak's clinic, he has seen decreasing health maintenance visits, including pap smears, preventative health screenings, and other gynecological screenings. He notes that missed services "indirectly affect our ability to detect any problems as early as possible" to the growing detriment of women, despite trying to manage with rising telehealth calls (FOC). These issues will have long-term health consequences. Due to the increasing cost of such vital medical services, women face dire health outcomes that will affect them and their families.
The mental and physical wellbeing of women is also of great concern. "Reports from NGOs that work with survivors of violence show an increase of almost 50 to 60 percent of hotline calls for physical and verbal violence experienced by women," says Dr. El Kak. Likely, these numbers do not reflect the accurate picture as violence against women is often underreported. "What we are seeing is an expanding structural violence against women, whether in terms of access to health services and goods or physical and verbal violence."
Dr. El Kak clarifies the root cause of why women are not receiving support during this pandemic and economic crisis – patriarchy. "This whole political system is patriarchal. It is a system that is very misogynist and does not see the importance, let alone encourages the participation of women. It is this misogynistic and patriarchal mentality that when it comes to subsidizing these health services or goods for women, it does not cross their minds." Patriarchy has, of course, preceded Lebanon's economic crisis, but it is precisely in these times of crisis that we see its dire ramifications.
Dr. El Kak knows it will be challenging to solve all the problems women face in Lebanon, and many of the solutions will take years. One thing for sure is that he cannot do it alone. "I cannot do this myself. I'm a doctor and activist, and every day I receive so many complaints. I have to call pharmacies and hospitals for constantly changing prices. Patients are so stressed from how hard it is getting, and I don't have access to all their needs. So, I think it's a collective, it's a collective work to help these women."