Two months on, Beirut’s elderly women are still reeling from the blast

Date: Monday, October 26, 2020

Violette Machaalany overseeing the work of the volunteers who came to fix her doors and windows. Photo: Dar Al Mussawir
Violette Machaalany overseeing the work of the volunteers who came to fix her doors and windows. Photo: Dar Al Mussawir

On 4 August 2020, 85-year-old Violette Machaalany was alone at home with her granddaughter, Elodie, when two explosions hit Beirut’s main port. The blast killed hundreds, displaced thousands and destroyed entire neighbourhoods, including Karantina, 2.2 Km away, where Violette has lived her entire life.

“I was born here. I got married here and raised my children here. We have lived through many wars, but I have never seen such an explosion before. The façade of the house fell in front of our eyes,” said Machaalany. “The explosion destroyed half of Beirut. We did not expect to survive, but we did, thank God.”

Machaalany has lived in the house since 1963 and known many losses. In 1975, she lost her husband to Lebanon’s civil war and raised her children by herself. In 2017, she lost her daughter to illness. Now she lives in the same house with her granddaughter.

“After the explosion, we left home and stayed at my son’s place for a week. But then I just wanted to go back home. I needed to see what could be fixed before winter. The whole façade, the windows, the fridge, the TV and the water heater were all gone,” she shared. “I can’t afford to replace them. So I depend on volunteers who are helping as much as they can. But this is taking time. If I could afford to hire a professional, it would have been much faster.”

Following the explosion, local non-governmental organizations and volunteers from all over Lebanon and its diaspora flooded to the impacted neighbourhoods to clean and repair the damages, particularly for the vulnerable and the elderly. 

The blast hit when the country was already grabbling with a stifling economic crisis, which was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lebanon also suffers from deep and entrenched gender inequalities, which means that any crisis further exacerbates the risks and vulnerabilities that women face. Lebanon ranks 145 out of 153 on the global World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index, and 139 on women’s economic participation. According to a rapid assessment that UN Women and ACTED produced immediately after the explosion, elderly women, like Machaalany, are among the most vulnerable. They are less likely than men to have worked in their life, to have savings or pensions, and are over-represented among Lebanon’s poorest. Other vulnerable groups who need immediate help are pregnant and lactating women. This assessment is part of UN Women’s efforts to support aid operations to effectively respond to the needs of women and girls impacted by the explosion.

“It is critical to understand how the Beirut blast affected women, men, girls, boys, and other gender minorities, to plan and implement an effective humanitarian response,” said Rachel Dore-Weeks, Head of UN Women Lebanon. “In general, women are less resilient to shocks than men because they are less likely to have jobs, savings, bank accounts, social protection and extensive social networks beyond their immediate family – all things critical to enabling them to cope with such a disaster. We urge Lebanon and all partners to prioritize the needs of vulnerable women, particularly the elderly, in our collective response to the explosion.”

“We used to have a tranquil life and make ends meet. But now our life has turned upside down, reflects Machaalany. “We don’t know how we are going to live. I have packed our stuff in a suitcase so that if something happens, we can run away.”

Since the explosion, UN Women has adapted its programmes to provide immediate relief to women and girls. Through its partners, the majority of whom are women-led national organizations, UN Women has provided protection and psychosocial assistance to those affected, and supported the distribution of essential items, such as food and cash.