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Coronavirus pandemic threatens to plunge millions in Arab region into poverty and food insecurity

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Food insecurity is on the rise in Gaza as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens a steep spike in poverty throughout the Arab region. WFP/Wissam Nassar

COVID-19 will be responsible for pushing a further 8.3 million people in the Arab region into poverty, according to a new policy brief issued on Wednesday by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).

And the pandemic could also bump up the number of undernourished people there by some two million. 

Current estimates show that there are some 101.4 million in the region who already live in poverty, according to official criteria, and around 52 million undernourished.

“The consequences of this crisis will be particularly severe on vulnerable groups”, said ESCWA Executive Secretary, Rola Dashti, pointing especially to “women and young adults, and those working in the informal sector who have no access to social protection and unemployment insurance”. 

Because of a high dependence on food imports within the Arab world, a disruption in global medical supplies to deal with the pandemic, will also have a severe impact on food security there, says ESCWA. 

Meanwhile, in addition to food loss and waste, worth around $60 billion annually across the region, the brief highlighted other likely economic losses, due to knock-on effects of the virus.

What action can be taken to lessen the impact?

According to ESCWA, reducing food loss and waste by 50 per cent would not only increase household income by some $20 billion, but also significantly improve food availability, reduce food imports and improve the balance of trade throughout the region.

Ms. Dashti encouraged Arab Governments to ensure “a swift emergency response to protect their people from falling into poverty and food insecurity owing to the impact of COVID-19”. 

Last week, she called for the establishment of a regional social solidarity fund to care for vulnerable countries. 

“The regional emergency response must support national efforts and mobilize resources and expertise to protect the poor and vulnerable”, concluded the Executive Secretary. 

At the same time, Khalid Abu-Ismail, Senior Economist at ESCWA, highlighted four measures that can be taken to mitigate the crisis, beginning with extending credit to small businesses and enterprises.

He also stressed the importance of building on social networks and expanding on cash and other transfers to the poor and vulnerable and encouraged countries to give “more access to the food insecure population” through the existing voucher system.
Mr. Abu-Ismail also highlighted the importance of other initiatives such as Arab Food Security Emergency Funds. 

As one of five UN regional commissions, ESCWA supports inclusive and sustainable economic and social development in Arab States and works on enhancing regional integration. 

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Human Rights

COVID-19 worsening gender-based violence, trafficking risk, for women and girls

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With the COVID-19 pandemic heightening the dangers of gender-based violence and human trafficking, action on these two fronts is needed now more than ever, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on Monday. 

UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly was speaking during a virtual event to strengthen global commitment at a time when women and girls are locked down and locked in, rendering them further exposed to violence and harassment, or at greater risk of being trafficked. 

“In every part of the world, we are seeing that COVID has worsened the plight of at-risk women and girls, while also hindering criminal justice responses and reducing support to victims,” she said

A ‘shadow pandemic’ surfaces 

Women and girls were already being exposed to different forms of violence before the pandemic.  

Most female homicide victims are killed by their intimate partners or other family members, according to UNODC, while women and girls make up more than 60 per cent of all victims of human trafficking.  

However, lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and other measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic have led to what the UN has called a “shadow pandemic” of rising gender-based violence. 

Women’s economic inequality also increases their vulnerability to trafficking and sexual violence, according to UN Women, which supports countries in their efforts to achieve gender equality. 

‘Business is booming’  

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the UN Women Executive Director, reported that most female survivors, or nearly 80 per cent, are trafficked for sexual exploitation. 

“There are socioeconomic consequences when these crimes happen, but in times of pandemic, the socioeconomic impact is even deeper,” she said.  

“Forty-seven million more women and girls will be pushed to extreme poverty because of COVID-19, but business is booming for traffickers.” 

Meanwhile, as already scant resources allocated for prevention, rescue and rehabilitation wear thin, women’s health is being put on the line, said Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, UNODC Goodwill Ambassador and a survivor of ISIL terrors in Iraq. 

“It is now difficult for many women to access psychological support, healthcare and safe shelter. They live in a constant state of vulnerability. For communities affected by conflict and displacement, these effects are often compounded,” she told the gathering. 

Answering the call 

In April, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appealed for a worldwide domestic violence “ceasefire”, urging governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the crisis. 

So far, nearly 150 countries have answered the Secretary-General’s call, pledging to make prevention and redress of gender-based violence a key part of their pandemic response. 

UNODC, alongside UN Women and other partners, are also backing the appeal. 

They are working together to promote action in four key areas: funding essential services, prevention, improving police and justice action, and collecting data. 

Recommendations for recovery 

Ms. Wady, the UNODC chief, emphasized the need to recover better after the pandemic. “Girls need to be able to go back to school and have equal opportunities. Women need decent jobs and social protection,” she said. 

Her colleague, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka at UN Women, pointed to the Secretary-General’s report on trafficking, which outlines additional recommendations. 

They include providing women with universal access to social protection as well as income protection, and designating programmes for trafficking survivors as essential services. 

The report further calls for long-term investment, including to address “toxic masculinity”, and to engage men and boys in programmes aimed at shifting norms and attitudes surrounding violence against women. 

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Human Rights

Global Experts To Convene Online To Discuss Values In A Post-Covid World

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Leading Islamic scholars and experts from around the world, representing government and civil society will convene online to attend the seventh assembly of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies being held between the dates of December 7-9.

The Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies is led by Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, President of the Higher Academic Council at the new Mohammed bin Zayed University for Humanities in Abu Dhabi, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. 

The Forum draws upon religious leadership and expertise to enter into productive conversations with academics, politicians, economists, and scientists about futures that are more peaceful, more secure, and more inter-connected for all humankind.

The title of this years Forum is “Human Values After Corona: Reviving Virtue in Times of Crisis.” It will examine how cooperation between nations, their people, and followers of the world religions can promote global peace and the welfare of all. The conference will emphasize the commonality or shared nature of humankind’s destiny at this crucial time. The conference will be unparalleled in its breadth this year hosting the most diverse panel of speakers spanning cultural, academic, governmental, and civic society fields in open conversation and with a shared commitment to positively influence the crisis’ present unfolding and alleviation.

The Forum will also discuss the healthcare dimensions of this pandemic and its effects upon mental health, especially given that the preservation of the human intellect is one of the overarching concerns of Islamic sacred law. Moreover, the guests will discuss how humanity may join hands across cultures and religions to create a new world that is human-centric and which prioritizes humanity’s wellbeing over other interests. Participants will also discuss the present economic crisis and the ethics of solidarity, as well as prospects for how the New Alliance of Virtue – signed by representatives of the world’s religions in Abu Dhabi last year – may be utilized in the process of our world’s upcoming ‘rebirth’.

Notable attendees will include:  the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Ambassador Sam Brownback, US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis Chief Rabbi of the UK, Professor Azza Karam,, Mr. Robert Wexler, Shaykh Mustafa Ceric, HE Noor-Ul-Haq Qadri, From Michael Sandel, Prof Sir Michael Marmot, Dr William Vendley,  and Professor Melissa Rogers, Rehman Chishti MP, and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf of Zaytuna College.

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Human Rights

The pandemic is fuelling slavery and sexual exploitation, UN experts warn

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UN human rights experts are warning of a direct link between the pandemic, socio-economic vulnerability and the risk of exploitation, including forced labour or being sold, trafficked and sexually exploited. © UNICEF/Noorani

The COVID-19 pandemic has played into the hands of slavers and traffickers and requires stronger government measures to prevent exploitation of vulnerable people, more than 50 independent UN human rights experts said in a statement on Monday. 

There was a direct link between the pandemic, socio-economic vulnerability and the risk of exploitation, they said. Exploitation could mean forced labour, including the worst forms of child labour, or being sold, trafficked and sexually exploited. 

Governments and businesses should recognise how the loss of jobs, income or land could put vulnerable groups at greater risk, such as people already facing discrimination on grounds of sex, race, age, disability, religion, nationality and economic status, and people without basic services such as sanitation and education.

“If workers don’t receive adequate economic, social and other support from governments, without discrimination on grounds of migration and other status, they face serious risk of exploitation, including being subjected to slavery, servitude, forced or bonded labour, or trafficking in persons”, the statement said.

“In this regard, we are concerned that these practices have increased in the past months. In some cases, victims are further subjected to ill-treatment, torture, or even disappearance when they are prevented from informing as to their fate and whereabouts and put outside the protection of the law.”

Signatories to the statement included many Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups –independent experts who report to the UN Human Rights Council – as well as the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which was set up by the UN General Assembly in 1991. 

Governments must do more to protect victims

They said governments must increase their efforts to identify and protect victims of slavery and trafficking, ensuring their access to essential health services, including reproductive health services, psycho-social counselling, legal assistance, vocational training, income-generating support and remedies without discrimination.

Governments should also try to remove social and employment inequalities that can make some people more at risk of slavery and exploitation, while international solidary was needed to ensure child protection was adequately funded, the human rights experts said.

“We call upon Member States and other entities to address the structural causes that contribute to slavery and exploitation and continue providing support to those offering comprehensive assistance to victims, including through contributions to the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year”, they said.

The statement’s first signatory, Tomoya Obokata, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, plans to hold a webinar on Tuesday to discuss aid for racially discriminated groups subjected to slavery during the global pandemic.

The statement was issued ahead of the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2 December, which marks the day in 1949 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the first Convention to fight human trafficking.

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 

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