BEIRUT: In honor of International Human Rights Day, dozens of activists gathered outside the Justice Ministry Tuesday morning to show solidarity with women incarcerated in Lebanon and to propose gendered reforms to the nation’s prison system.
Wrapped in scarves and winter coats, both male and female activists somberly held signs calling for authorities to respect the dignity of incarcerated women and to uphold their rights. The group was closely observed by aloof policemen.
“The prisoners’ human rights are being violated, including the right for health, rehabilitation, education and to receive justice,” said Manar Zeaiter, a lawyer with the Lebanese Women’s Democratic Gathering.
“We want the Justice Ministry, which is now working on new regulations for prisons, to differentiate between the needs of men and the needs of women,” explained Diana Assaf of the Swedish development organization Diakonia.
Specifically, the Lebanese legal code does not account for the vastly different health and hygiene needs of male and female prisoners, Assaf said.
Additionally, women who are pregnant or nursing while incarcerated need more protection under the law, she said.
The Rev. Hadi Aya, who works with Lebanese organization Justice et Misericorde, said the interrogation of female suspects by male officers was another point of contention.
“We have to prepare specific criteria for women’s interrogations,” he said. “We must make a new law which says that women can never be interrogated without the presence of at least one other female.”
While female wardens guard female prisoners, the decisions about women’s prisons are ultimately made by male superiors.
This dynamic, Aya said, creates a culture of corruption. Some women have reported being harassed by male authorities while in prison.
“There are women who talk [about sexual harassment] and others who don’t dare to,” he said. “We cannot accept acts of violence against them, especially by the authorities.”
The group presented the justice minister with a formal list of recommendations to improve the conditions of incarcerated women.
The proposals included providing women with hygiene products, allowing them to communicate with their children, creating more private spaces and improving prison management.
The activists also asked the justice minister to make sure foreign female prisoners have access to translators and that specialized care be organized for pregnant and nursing mothers.
A study of the nation’s prisons for women, funded in part by the European Union and published earlier this year, suggested that the Lebanese government establish nurseries for children born in prison and create special rehabilitation programs for young female offenders.
The study also noted “violations regarding the availability of gynecological services and treatment of mental disorders and periodic medical examinations for chronic diseases and sexually transmitted diseases.”
The report noted that Lebanese prisons often fail to meet international human rights standards. Female prisoners, who are often particularly vulnerable, endure the consequences of these shortcomings.
“The women are suffering,” Aya said. “We must help them.”