BEIRUT: Women in Lebanon have made considerable strides toward gender equality in education and the workplace but continue to face significant discrimination in many other facets of society, a study said this week.
As calculated by the study, Lebanese women enjoy the fourth greatest degree of freedom in the Middle East and North Africa region, after women in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. The report, “Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress and Resistance,” by the US-based Freedom House organization, found Yemen and Saudi Arabia trailed significantly behind its regional neighbors.
“The Middle East remains the most repressive region when it comes to women’s rights but we have noticed some modest gains which have led to a cautious optimism in the fields of education, labor participation and vote participation,” said Sanja Kelly, managing editor of the report.
Researchers in 18 countries in the region conducted hundreds of interviews with women to assess whether gains had been made. Lebanon registered modest improvements in women’s access to justice, autonomy, economic, political, social and cultural rights since the last country report in 2004.
“Although discriminatory laws and policies exist, the [Lebanese] government has expressed interest in reform,” said Mona Khalaf, who authored the study’s chapter on Lebanon. She referred to amendments made in 2000 to some discriminatory provisions within the labor and social security codes, the establishment of the Women and Children’s Rights Commission and remarks made in the government’s ministerial statement in 2005 regarding the need to address women’s rights.
“While the latter moves have not so far produced effective actions or legal revisions, they suggest an ongoing shift – from indifference to active engagement – in the government’s attitude on gender discrimination,” she said.
In particular, civil society-led campaigns to amend Lebanon’s discriminatory nationality law and to formulate a family-violence bill are attracting greater interest from political and religious figures, although few have openly supported the former.
Khalaf also noted a substantial increase in the number of women working in the Lebanese judiciary. Women currently account for 38 percent of judges in the civil, commercial and criminal courts, and 28 percent of judges in the administrative courts. “Despite these and other remarkable achievements, no woman has ever been appointed to the Constitutional Council, the Higher Council of the judiciary, or the Justice Council,” she noted, adding women were also barred from serving as judges in the religious courts.
Women continue to face acute discriminations in matters of personal status, such as divorce, inheritance or custody, and while more now run businesses, few participate in national or local politics.
The report found that an average of 28 percent of Arab women in the 18 countries assessed worked or were considered “economically active.” The figure is the lowest rate in the world. Nevertheless, “there are more women entrepreneurs, more women doctors, more women PhDs, and more women in universities, than ever before,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House. “However, substantial roadblocks remain for women pursuing careers.”
While women in Lebanon are allowed to make decisions regarding their reproductive rights, abortion is illegal and punishable by up to seven years in prison.
In addition, gender-based violence and impunity in spousal abuse remain pervasive, Khalaf said, although she added a number of organizations and help lines are increasingly available for women in need of help. Honor killings still occur – between 1999 and 2007, 66 court sessions reportedly took place related to 82 murders of women, with lenient sentences given to their perpetrators.
“When courts are incapable of upholding basic legal rights in the face of political and societal pressures, those guilty of spousal abuse, gender-based discrimination, or even murder, often walk free,” said Kelly.