In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, due in September 2020, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.
CIVICUS and the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) speak to Hayat Mirshad, a feminist journalist and activist and head of communications and campaigning with The Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering (RDFL), a feminist and secular civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for women’s rights. Founded in 1976 and based on volunteerism, RDFL is one of the oldest feminist organisations in Lebanon. It advocates for the elimination of gender-based violence (GBV) and all forms of discrimination and seeks to achieve full citizenship for women. It has held many successful campaigns, including the #NotBefore18 campaign, launched in 2017, which led to the Lebanese parliament introducing a bill, currently under parliamentary consideration, to set the minimum age of marriage at 18.
What is the situation of women’s rights in Lebanon? How much has been achieved thus far and what are the remaining challenges?
As a result of a highly religious background, Lebanon does not have a civil code regulating issues such as divorce, property rights, or child custody. Instead, it has 15 separate personal status laws for the country’s different religious communities, which are administered by separate religious courts. Personal status laws discriminate against women and do not guarantee their basic rights.
Legal change is slow because women remain extremely underrepresented in politics: less than five per cent of current members of parliament are women. In some cases, local media also play a role in marginalising women politically. This was documented by recent studies conducted after the 2018 parliamentary elections. Women also have a minimal presence in workers’ unions.
Within the framework of our strategic plan to achieve gender equality, RDFL has worked to educate women about their rights and provide them with legal assistance to solve the problems they are exposed to, whether at work, in the family, or in any other sphere. RDFL has also submitted and contributed to several law proposals to the parliament and called for the cancellation of personal status laws.
We have had some victories. Lebanon is committed to international agreements that prohibit gender discrimination in most important matters, and in Lebanon, international agreements have priority over national law. Some laws on women’s rights have been partially amended over the past few years, while others have been repealed. There have also been court rulings advancing women’s rights.
For example, in 2002 the Lebanese judiciary stipulated that men and women should be equally covered by social security, in addition to specific rights pertaining to women, such as maternity leave, and made a number of amendments to the Lebanese labour law. The International Labour Convention No. 111, which prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation, had a decisive role in the adoption of this ruling.
In 2011, Article 562 of the Lebanese Penal Code, about so-called ‘crimes of honour’, was abolished. Under this article, if someone found their spouse or another female relative, such as a sister, committing adultery and went on to kill or harm them without premeditation, they would be exempted from punishment, because they would have committed a ‘crime of honour’. Although this article was repealed, ‘crimes of honour’ remain an established practice and they are widely accepted within the patriarchal Lebanese society and in the culture and discourse of some representatives of our state, even when they claim to represent progress and modernity.
Another change was achieved in 2014, when parliament approved the Domestic Violence Law. This law promotes women's rights and seeks to protect their safety. However, it has many deficiencies. While it introduces some measures to protect women, it still contains discriminatory articles; for instance, it leaves women at risk of marital rape. CSOs concerned with women's rights have worked to follow up on cases of family violence, and in this context, the RDFL provides social, psychological and legal support services for all abuses, through communication via our hotline.
In 2017, Article 522 of the Criminal Code was abolished. Article 522 supported the practice of pardoning rapists and exempting them from serving prison time if they married their victims. The law changed due to pressure from CSOs, but work is still underway to abolish it in practice, especially in some places where the concept of honour still prevails.
Despite the abolition of Article 522, Lebanese laws still legalise rape in various forms. Articles 50 and 518 have remained untouched, so the Criminal Code can still be used to exempt rapists of minors between 15 and 18 years old from prosecution or punishment when the survivors have been promised by their parents to marry the rapist. And marital rape is still not criminalised. There are no laws that protect women and make it easier for them to pursue and prosecute their aggressors.
While several laws were amended or repealed, much more needs to be done, because women in Lebanon still face violence and the application of arbitrary laws. They remain victims of patriarchal laws, traditions and norms.
What are the main obstacles hindering the realisation of the Beijing Platform for Action and Agenda 2030 regarding women’s rights in Lebanon? Has the situation changed under the COVID-19 pandemic?
We still face the challenge of minimal funding opportunities for women’s issues and feminist grassroots organisations. There is also the problem of underreporting of crimes against women. For many reasons, most women are still unable or hesitant to report the violence they face. Discrimination against women is still prevalent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse. It reached Lebanon at a time of devastating economic crisis, deteriorating social protection systems and rising unemployment. The situation, both in terms of security and the socio-economic crisis, has had an impact on the work we do.
Among the measures imposed to curb the pandemic was a lockdown, in which hundreds of women, girls and children were locked up behind closed doors. Their stories revealed pain, violence and fear during the mandated quarantine, which at times led to suicide and murder. The pandemic has led to an increase in reports of domestic violence. In March 2020 domestic violence reports to Internal Security Forces increased by 100 per cent, and calls to RDFL’s hotline increased by 180 per cent compared to the previous two months. All these were new cases. Twelve per cent of the cases were very serious, and 13 per cent of the people involved left their homes and needed shelter.
While cases of violence increased under home confinement during the pandemic, Social Development Centres – which provide social services to vulnerable communities and form an extended network led by the Ministry of Social Affairs- closed their doors due to the spread of the virus, so we now lack enough shelters to receive women survivors of GBV and don’t have the ability to secure the supplies and basic needs for them. This is in addition to the fact that many women are unemployed due to the global health crisis and national economic crisis and need additional help and support.
Moreover, under the pandemic women’s and girls’ unpaid domestic and care labour has only increased. And women are the majority on the frontlines of healthcare and social work and thus are disproportionately vulnerable to contagion.
We are also concerned about the most marginalised, including LGBTQI+ communities, migrant domestic workers and refugees. Under this crisis, the system has shown that it is incapable of protecting the most vulnerable and marginalised, from a social, economic, or health perspective, including women, children, older people, domestic workers and refugees.
How has RDFL, and civil society more generally, responded to this situation?
Civil and women’s rights organisations are playing vital roles mainly through providing psychosocial and legal support to women and girl survivors of GBV, raising awareness on the gendered impact of the current crisis, mainly through online and social media, advocating for better measures and commitment from the government and officials to protect women’s rights, support in distributing and providing food assistance and in-kind or cash support to families and women in need.
RDFL has continued its work to support women and girls. It is providing psychological, social and legal support to survivors and monitoring violence in various Lebanese regions during the pandemic. We have also been part of an awareness campaign against violence against women launched by the National Authority for Women Affairs to reject violence and support those who seek protection and assistance. We have initiated a distribution campaign for women beneficiaries of psychosocial support services, who have already requested support through the RDFL hotline. To further raise awareness of GBV, we have also organised an interactive training session on women’s and girls’ rights.
We continue to document phone calls via our hotline and lobby directly on our online platforms through statements, online posts and direct coordination with official bodies like the National Council for Lebanese Women and others for urgent actions to ensure women’s and girls’ protection amid the pandemic.
But we have also faced additional restrictions on our work as a result of the pandemic. For instance, we have had trouble accessing our centres to help serve women and girls. All our offline activities were put on hold, and this made it very challenging in terms of case management, because all support is being provided remotely through online communication tools. We are concerned about women who are at high risk and in need of shelter, because many shelters are not welcoming women because of fear of COVID-19 and others are at maximum capacity. We are also facing financial restrictions: it has become difficult to access our funds and bank accounts, a public problem that all Lebanese citizens have recently suffered from.
What support does civil society in Lebanon need from the international community?
For Beijing+25 to power real progress on gender equality in crisis settings like Lebanon’s, donors must adopt more feminist approaches to funding grassroots organisations.
In Lebanon, traditional mechanisms for funding grassroots feminist organisations are often too top-down, rigid and patriarchal in responding to crisis situations. For example, inflexible donor deadlines and strict limits on cash withdrawals have curtailed our ability to access resources. We need to adapt our programmes to meet new needs during the country’s current political and economic crisis. A feminist approach to funding grassroots movements requires that funders listen to and learn from CSOs when we express what we need to empower our communities to achieve progress. It also means providing the core funding we need to sustain and support our staff fully to withstand the issues they face in challenging environments. In crisis settings like Lebanon’s, political and economic conditions are constantly in flux, so more flexible and adaptive funding mechanisms are critical to ensuring we can stay nimble to ever-changing environments.
There has been a groundswell of international coverage on women’s movements around the world – from #MeToo to #NiUnaMenos and the spotlight on women’s leadership during Lebanon’s revolution. However, this attention has yet to translate into the real action we need to improve the health, rights and leadership of girls and women in our communities. Change begins by handing over the mic to grassroots feminist organisations in all our diverse and intersectional identities – including by ensuring that LGBTQI+ persons, migrant workers and other marginalised groups have a seat at the table.
We call on international actors to walk the talk by standing in true solidarity with grassroots feminist movements around the world. This can be done by putting pressure on governments to reinforce gender equality priorities and the basic rights of women and girls as a fundamental priority. There is a need to tie any bilateral development and humanitarian funding – for example, through the International Monetary Fund and World Bank – to upholding basic feminist principles. More power, resources and influence need to be handed over to grassroots feminist organisations to help us achieve our collective gender equality goals.
Civic space in Lebanon is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. The country also currently features on our Civic Space Watchlist.