BEIRUT: While female victims of domestic violence have more legal recourse and social support than in the past, the government must implement laws to ensure their protection and equal rights, according to experts and a publication launched this week by the U.N. Women and the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. “Lebanon has not yet effectively implemented ways to protect women from all forms of gender-based violence, including domestic violence,” says the report “Combating Domestic Violence Against Women and Girls.”
Lebanon has no laws that recognize domestic abuse as different from other acts of violence, although assault and other forms of physical abuse are ostensibly covered under the penal code.
Last July, however, a parliamentary group unanimously approved a draft law to protect women from domestic violence just weeks after Rola Yacoub was allegedly beaten to death by her husband in front of their children. Though it remains unclear when Parliament will reconvene, many believe it will be adopted.
“I expect that if submitted, this bill will pass,” MP Ghassan Mokheiber told The Daily Star.
The law formally criminalizes domestic abuse and calls for the establishment of a special police force to respond to family violence. It also introduces a mechanism analogous to a restraining order in the U.S. judicial system. Most controversially, the law recognizes marital rape, but does not classify it as a crime.
“The law is sending a strong message that domestic violence and violence against women are not acceptable by religion, communities nor by the state,” Mokheiber said.
When it was first proposed, many religious and political figures came out against the law on the grounds that the state had no business prying into the privacy of families.
At the launch of the publication Friday, Lebanese actress, director and activist Nidal Achkar came out strongly against such arguments, saying “privacy is being used as a pretext to consecrate discrimination” against women.
According to the report, across the Arab world, “authorities tend to focus on solving the problem of domestic violence in terms of ‘preserving the family’ rather than addressing the criminal aspects of violence.”
However, with an aggressive public awareness campaign, victims of domestic violence in Lebanon have more resources at their disposal than ever before.
Recently, the anti-violence NGO Kafa has partnered with the Internal Security Forces to launch an awareness campaign encouraging women to call the police if they are being physically abused at home. The campaign includes public service announcements featuring a uniformed man or woman with a woman in civilian clothes standing behind him or her, looking slightly scared and hopeful. The text reads: “We have an important duty behind us,” casting the police as protectors of women.
Since the campaign began, 112 has seen a marked increase in domestic violence calls, Kafa’s Maya Ammar told The Daily Star.
The organization is also educating members of the ISF about the proper procedures to follow in domestic abuses cases. The program, Ammar says, has been a success.
“They’re responding better. They know what to do. They have a clear trajectory to follow,” she said.
An spokesman for the ISF also praised the partnership.
“It’s going very well,” he told The Daily Star.
“We’re training all the ISF personnel to counter this particular violence.”
Still, the U.N. report suggested that changing attitudes toward domestic and spousal abuse in Lebanon requires both political will and more sensitivity from the media.
“A recent study on media coverage in Lebanon suggested that reporting on violence against women tends to be one-sided, giving the impression that this type of violence is ‘a normal act and part of everyday life’; and reporting tends to focus on the victim and her status, often ignoring the perpetrator and rarely seeking additional information from security services,” the report says.
Wide-reaching campaigns are required to address the issue of domestic abuse, Mokheiber told The Daily Star. “It has to be handled at the level of law, at the level of education and at the social level,” he said.
Ammar, however, is cautiously optimistic. “We cannot say things are perfect, but at least its better.”