BEIRUT: Most incidents of gender-based violence are perpetrated against women by their husbands or male partners, according to the World Health Organization. The dangers of the lack of legislation in Lebanon differentiating domestic abuse from other acts of violence were tragically highlighted last week, when teacher Manal Assi was allegedly beaten to death by her husband.A draft law to protect family members from domestic violence approved last July has yet to be adopted by Parliament, and a similar lack of legislation in many countries regionally makes discussion of the issue among both genders crucial.
Most NGOs that campaign to raise awareness, change the laws and provide counseling are women’s rights organizations, however, whose mandate does not extend to men.
Anthony Keedi, manager of the ABAAD Men Center, which seeks to involve men in the process of eradicating gender based violence, says that encouraging men to participate in discussion of issues such a domestic violence and gender equality is critical to understanding the root of these problems and working on their prevention.
The center, which opened in July 2012, offers free, confidential counseling for men suffering from stress or anger issues, who fear that their problems are negatively affecting their families. They work to raise awareness of the harm caused by negative gender perceptions through nationwide publicity campaigns, seminars, conferences and workshops.
Men are often placed under huge amounts of social pressure to fulfill certain roles, Keedi explains.
“When men don’t feel that they’re living up to these roles, how does society tell them that it’s alright for them to deal with that pressure?” he asks. “We don’t tell them it’s okay to talk. We don’t tell them it’s okay to cry, or feel sad, or lean on loved ones. We tell them that the masculine response is violence, drinking, keeping silent, holding it in. These are expectations of gender that will burden them. So we’re trying to empower women from one side and we’re trying to teach men that the hard, cold stereotype that men are told is manly [is] not healthy.”
The center recently completed a countrywide survey, quizzing men and women from all ages and backgrounds, married and unmarried, on their perceptions of masculinity. Due to be published in the next few months, Keedi says the survey is the first of its kind in the country.
“A lot of other studies have looked at abuse or discrimination or bias, and there has been a lot of assumptions about the male psyche based on that, but this is the first time we came to men and women and said: ‘Okay, you tell us,’” he says.
“We decided ‘Why don’t we come up with a study about what people residing in Lebanon think masculinity entails? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman?’ ... By understanding those perceptions, we can start understanding what we need to change about [them].
“One of the biggest surprises ... was [that] many of the negative stigmas about masculinity were also reinforced by women. They thought that a man had to be the breadwinner, for example. ... As long as we always look at that as a primary role for men, women are never going to be able to move in and take that role, because every job that a women has will be [perceived as] a job that a man doesn’t have.”
More than 300 men have taken advantage of the center’s psychological counseling since it opened, Keedi says. Now the center is working on creating a regional network.
“Right now we’re in the process of beginning the Lebanon and Middle East MenEngage Network,” Keedi says.
“Globally, there’s a network called MenEngage, which began with organizations like Promundo in Brazil and Sonke in South Africa, and these networks are based on organizations who are working with men on issues of masculinity.”
MenEngage is currently active in Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America and the Caribbean. The Middle East and North Africa region is the largest area in the world where MenEngage hasn’t yet established a base, Keedi says.
Over the past year, the Men Center has been working with MenEngage to assess the feasibility of setting up a regional network and aims to begin working with organizations across the MENA region by the end of the year to establish an active online presence and facilitate the general public sharing experiences, asking questions and learning from one another.
In the meantime, the center is working on promoting equality in Lebanon through fatherhood and partnership programs, which encourage men and women to share responsibility for household chores and childcare – traditionally seen as the responsibility of women – and earning a wage and providing financial security for dependents, often left to the man of the house.
“The beautiful thing about fatherhood programs is that it’s really tapping into a role that men have that is wonderful and that they don’t really enjoy,” Keedi says. “Because ... historically in Middle Eastern cultures, the father isn’t the one that feeds the children or changes the diapers or is very loving and caring and plays with them. When he has a baby the first thing that goes through his mind is: ‘How am I going to support this child?’”
The center also works on engaging youth in discussions on gender through initiatives such as “Youth Against Violence Against Women,” a four-day filmmaking workshop for Syrian and Lebanese men and women held last month in the Bekaa Valley.
The ongoing workshop series stems from a 2011 campaign, Keedi says, in which 16 young men were given practical filmmaking training and support to come up with 30-second TV spots reflecting on gender roles and perceptions, women’s empowerment and how to engage men.
“Again, these workshops are going to be based on gender,” Keedi says. “Although the accent of it might be a little wider. The last ones were messages from men to men. [Now] men and women are working on it and we’re [including] refugees, so I believe ... the messages are going to be much more diverse.”