BEIRUT: Lebanese women’s rights organizations stepped up campaigns on gender equality this month to mark the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. To mark the global initiative – that runs between the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women on Nov. 25 and Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 – NGOs and service providers are raising awareness about the most pressing issues surrounding gender-based violence in Lebanon.
The World Economic Forum this year ranked Lebanon 135th among 144 emerging economies, estimating it closed 59 percent of its gender gap.
Reforming Lebanon’s antiquated legal system is considered to be a priority for laying the foundations to a more equal society.
“Women who want a divorce face a number of challenges,” said Maya Ammar, communications manager of KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation which works to counter gender discrimination and violence. “Sometimes they end up staying in abusive relationships because they feel they do not have a choice.”
A 2015 report published by Human Rights Watch found Lebanon’s religious-based personal status laws often legitimize human rights violations in Lebanon. Across all religions, women who wish to terminate abusive marriages, retain custody of their children or secure financial rights were found face greater barriers than men.
KAFA’s campaign – launched on the occasion of the 16 Days of Action – advocates for the adoption of a civil code that ensures equal rights for all Lebanese women. “While many agree in principle with our campaigns, many still think that adopting a civil code is an act against religion,” Ammar told The Daily Star.
Advocacy organizations are also campaigning against Article 522 of the penal code, which protects perpetrators of rape provided they marry their victim. “This is a law that denies women of their dignity and forces them into a life of daily abuse,” said Roula Masri, senior gender equality program manager with local NGO ABAAD. The organization – which promotes sustainable social and economic development – is launching a new social media campaign under the hashtag #undress522 and vows to continue advocating until the law is abolished.
In recent years, the Lebanese legal system has taken a step forward in ensuring better protection of women by endorsing Law 293 on the protection of women and family members against family violence in 2014. Despite its many shortcomings – among which are a failure to punish marital rape or to adjust the age when child custody reverts to the father in cases of abuse – the law grants women the right to file Orders of Protection in case of a threat of violence. KAFA has been a front-runner in lobbying for the law, and according to Ammar, nearly 200 Orders of Protections have been filed since the law was passed.
However, data from KAFA shows that only 32 percent of the Lebanese public knows of the new law, indicating the need to raise public awareness of the legal tools already available as well as battling for new ones.
Other campaigns launched on the occasion of the 16 days of activism, aimed to increase public involvement in debates revolving around gender-based violence and gender equality. The Knowledge Is Power Project – a U.S.-funded initiative promoted by the American University of Beirut aimed at disseminating information on gender and sexuality – launched the Twitter hashtag #NotYourAshta to raise awareness on street harassment. The phrase refers to a prevalent expression used by street harasser to compliment women by comparing them to a sweet fruit.
Men wishing to voice their support, as well as women who have been victims of harassment, tweeted under this common hashtag to point out the problematic nature of this behavior. “It is not OK, it is not ‘normal’ and is certainly not harmless!” user Hani Hassan tweeted. “You should not accept such action whether you are a victim or a witness,” Bassel Saleh tweeted.
A series of informal talks tackling social and economic rights from a gender perspective has been launched by Lebanon Support under the name Gender Afterworks. Following the first two events featuring researchers and lawyers working in the field, the group aims to host further events in 2017.
According to Anthony Keedi, manager of the Masculinities program at ABAAD, gender equality would be advantageous for men as much as for women. “Normalizing certain behaviors does not mean you are happy with them,” Keedi told The Daily Star, adding that the gendered ways in which men respond to stress are based upon their understanding of what it means to be men. Those who turn to ABAAD for psychological support are themselves unhappy with their abusive behavior, but do not know how to break free from these dynamics. “Men are told their role is that of protectors and providers,” Keedi said. “We help them understand how being a man means also being a father, a husband and a friend.”