BEIRUT: “Say no.” The slogan adorns a poster depicting a drawing of a tearful child, part of a campaign launched by a group of pro bono lawyers and activists that began during Eid al-Fitr to combat sexual harassment in the streets of Lebanon.
The campaign, called “Shuft Taharrush” (I’ve seen harassment), was launched by “Say No To Violence Against Women,” an activist group, and is modeled on similar campaigns in Tunisia and Egypt, where grassroots organizations have emerged to combat widespread sexual assaults at political demonstrations.
The multi-pronged campaign includes a hotline to report harassment cases, trained volunteers who spot and record incidents of sexual harassment and report them to the police, and lawyers who volunteer to represent harassment victims.
Tarek Abouzeinab, who came up with the idea for the campaign, said it aimed to shatter a “wall of silence” that prevented women from reporting sexual harassment cases.
Out of about 200 calls reporting abuse received by the hotline, Abouzeinab said the most frequent complaints were related to sexual harassment at work, including inappropriate touching of women by male colleagues, behavior that discourages women from joining the workforce.
In addition, cases of harassment against teenagers, who are less likely to take precautions, were reported.
Abouzeinab also said there were numerous cases of sexual exploitation of Syrian refugees.
“Our brothers and sisters who are displaced from Syria are subject to high levels of sexual exploitation and harassment,” Abouzeinab said, adding that they were also frequently harassed while waiting in crowded lines to receive aid packages.
There are currently over 650,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, fleeing the violence that engulfed their country for over two years.
There are also over 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees in camps throughout Lebanon.
Abouzeinab also said women out in the evening enjoying Lebanon’s nightlife were targets.
Lebanon lags behind other developing countries in women’s rights. A law protecting women against violence has yet to be ratified by Parliament, and the country is not a signatory to the U.N.’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
“We call on the Lebanese state to endorse the law protecting women against violence and the law protecting women from sexual harassment,” Abouzeinab said. “There must be a humanitarian revolution in Lebanon.”
Abouzeinab said that many women lack awareness of their rights and the possibility of pressing charges against harassers. In patriarchal societies, women often fear responding forcefully to advances by men, which can be understood as consent, he said.
Abouzeinab attributed the rise of sexual harassment in recent years to three factors:
First, he said, high unemployment meant that many young men are left without the means to pursue marriage.
Second, the high number of refugees means a greater capacity for the sexual exploitation of vulnerable populations.
Finally, Abouzeinab said, the frequent violence and crises plaguing Lebanon have scarred young people and contributed to psychological problems. Political assassinations, civil strife and a war with Israel have all plagued Lebanon over the last decade.
“This is all violence in different forms,” he said.
Abouzeinab said the initiative, which was not funded, included 22 lawyers scattered throughout the country, as well as nearly two dozen volunteers spotting harassment incidents.
“Everyone has a sister, mother, wife, daughter who may face harassment,” he said.
The volunteers are trained to identify such incidents, photograph them and ask the victims if they wish to press charges. The lawyers then take on the cases free of charge.
The initiative, Abouzeinab said, is intended to empower women who were among the first to march against dictatorship in the Arab uprisings, but were then quickly marginalized.
The group’s Facebook page already has over 18,000 members. The number to report sexual harassment is 03-980-603.