In blast-hit Beirut, ‘invisible’ elderly women face destitution

Thousands of elderly women in Beirut whose lives were upended by a huge blast in August now face destitution. (File/AFP)
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Updated 13 November 2020

In blast-hit Beirut, ‘invisible’ elderly women face destitution

  • There is no state pension in Lebanon and only retirees who were in formal employment receive financial support in old age
  • The country has one of the world’s lowest rates of women in the workforce

AMMAN: Thousands of elderly women in Beirut whose lives were upended by a huge blast in August now face destitution, as Lebanon buckles under financial crisis and a COVID-19 lockdown, charities said.
The United Nations (UN) and aid agencies said older women living alone made up almost one in 10 households in areas hit by the explosion, which wrecked swathes of Beirut, killed 200 people, injured thousands more and displaced 300,000.
“A mental health hotline responder noted a rise in calls from older people contemplating suicide,” UN Women and others said in an analysis, calling for emergency aid in Beirut to better target potentially “invisible” elderly people.
“Because of higher rates of physical disabilities among older people, combined with increased inability to leave their homes, limited economic means and fears around COVID-19, older women are struggling to access assistance.”
With almost 100,000 COVID-19 cases and some 700 deaths since February, Lebanon announced a new coronavirus lockdown this week to stem rising infections, with hospitals unable to find beds to admit critical cases, caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab said.
Before the August explosion, which officials blamed on unsafely stored ammonium nitrate, Lebanon was already grappling with worsening poverty, the scars of civil war three decades ago and a financial crisis rooted in corruption and mismanagement.
Some elderly people in Lebanon feel they are a burden on younger relatives, charities said, as there is no state pension in the Middle Eastern country and only retirees who were in formal employment receive financial support in old age.
Old women are often left in poverty. Lebanon has 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.
“Because they are women, they are less likely to have worked throughout their lives, which means they are less likely to have savings, they are less likely to have a pension,” said Rachel Dore-Weeks, head of UN Women in Lebanon.
“Because of this, they are less likely to have the economic resources to react, respond and recover from the crisis.”
Widows are often unable to support themselves financially so they rely on their children, who then count on their children to do the same for them in old age, said Maya Ibrahimchah, founder of Beit el Baraka, a non-profit that supports elderly people.
“We don’t want parents to always be a burden on their kids,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“These three post-war generations are not living. They are surviving in order to take care of the previous generations.”
Beit el Baraka was one of the leaders of Beirut’s large community-led effort after the blast to help rebuild homes, provide aid, medication and psychological support.
One of its main goals is to help elderly people with rent and utility payments so that they are not forced out of their homes into cheaper accommodation or on to the streets.
“It’s very difficult at 70 to leave your whole life, your friends and neighbors behind, and go rent a small room in a poor area where you don’t know anyone,” Ibrahimchah said.
“(We) need to make sure that they can stay in their homes and be taken care of until this economic crisis is over.”
Plans to expand social protection schemes to tackle poverty, including a universal state pension, were put on hold after the government resigned in the wake of the August blast, said Assem Abi Ali of the social affairs ministry.
“One of its main components addresses the issue of caring for the elderly through a pension scheme ... in order to protect them from destitution, hunger and homelessness,” said Abi Ali who supervises its crisis response plan, which began in 2015.
Working with humanitarian groups, the ministry helped deliver food aid, wheelchairs and crutches to elderly and disabled people after the blast, Abi Ali said.
But Dore-Weeks said more needed to be done to provide elderly women, disproportionately living in poverty and alone, with medical and emotional support during the pandemic.
“There is a huge need for tailored psychosocial support for these communities and that is a real challenge in the context of COVID-19 when so many face-to-face interactions are deemed unsafe,” she said.


German defense minister rejects Turkey complaint over Libya weapons ship search

Updated 24 November 2020

German defense minister rejects Turkey complaint over Libya weapons ship search

  • Germany insists it acted correctly in boarding a Turkish ship to enforce arms embargo of Libya
  • Turkey summoned European diplomats to complain at the operation

BERLIN: Germany’s defense minister on Tuesday rejected Turkey’s complaints over the search of a Turkish freighter in the Mediterranean Sea by a German frigate participating in a European mission, insisting that German sailors acted correctly.
Sunday’s incident prompted Turkey to summon diplomats representing the European Union, Germany and Italy and assert that the Libya-bound freighter Rosaline-A was subjected to an “illegal” search by personnel from the German frigate Hamburg. The German ship is part of the European Union’s Irini naval mission, which is enforcing an arms embargo against Libya.
German officials say that the order to board the ship came from Irini’s headquarters in Rome and that Turkey protested while the team was on board. The search was then ended.
Turkey says the search was “unauthorized and conducted by force.”
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer backed the German crew’s actions.
“It is important to me to make really clear that the Bundeswehr soldiers behaved completely correctly,” she said during an appearance in Berlin. “They did what is asked of them in the framework of the European Irini mandate.”
“That there is this debate with the Turkish side points to one of the fundamental problems of this European mission,” Kramp-Karrenbauer added, without elaborating. “But it is very important to me to say clearly here that there are no grounds for these accusations that are now being made against the soldiers.”
This was the second incident between Turkey and naval forces from a NATO ally enforcing an arms blockade against Libya.
In June, NATO launched an investigation over an incident between Turkish warships and a French naval vessel in the Mediterranean, after France said one of its frigates was “lit up” three times by Turkish naval targeting radar when it tried to approach a Turkish civilian ship suspected of involvement in arms trafficking.
Turkey supports a UN-backed government in Tripoli against rival forces based in the country’s east. It has complained that the EU naval operation focuses its efforts too much on the Tripoli administration and turns a blind eye to weapons sent to the eastern-based forces.
In Ankara, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that Irini was “flawed from the onset.”
“It is not based on firm international legal foundations,” Akar said. He renewed Turkey’s criticism of the German ship’s actions.
“The incident was against international laws and practices. It was wrong,” he said.
Kramp-Karrenbauer stressed that “Turkey is still an important partner for us in NATO.” Turkey being outside the military alliance would make the situation even more difficult, she argued, and Turkish soldiers are “absolutely reliable partners” in NATO missions.
But she conceded that Turkey poses “a big challenge” because of how its domestic politics have developed and because it has its “own agenda, which is difficult to reconcile with European questions in particular.”