It wasn’t until late last year that sexual harassment finally became illegal in Lebanon, perhaps not surprising in a country where 95 percent of MPs, are men and there has never been a woman prime minister or president.
But while the anti-sexual harassment laws were groundbreaking, activists say they fall far short of what is needed to protect women in Lebanon, as they failed to criminalise marital rape and underage marriage, while potentially making it difficult for women who want to come forward to report abuse.
Ghada Joumblatt, an executive board member for the National Commission for Lebanese Women (NCLW), praised the passing of the law as “a new step forward” for Lebanon, while the NCLW also celebrated it as a victory for migrant workers who were included under the law’s protections. But the NCLW is working to fill the gaps in law. “The said draft law had been proposed by one of the parliamentarian groups,” Joumblatt said. “However, this draft law has not yet been referred to the Parliament for discussion and approval. And NCLW continues to follow up on its referral and endorsement.” Established in 1998, the NCLW works to promote women’s rights in Lebanon, aiming to “empower women and ensure gender equality in the social, political, economic and legal spheres.” During the pandemic, the institution has focused on tackling a rise in domestic abuse across Lebanon – a terrible trend that is being replicated around the world.
Trying to change the laws around underage marriage has been a years-long fight. According to the UN, one of the reasons this issue is so difficult to address is due to the number of different religious courts present in Lebanon. The minimum age of marriage varies across these different religious groups and the government is yet to force a consensus.
There are also concerns that the law does not do enough to ensure successful convictions and protect the victims of sexual harassment. “The law is surely a step in the right direction, but as legal experts and human rights organisations in Lebanon pointed out, the law fell short at asking the victim to prove that she has been subject to sexual harassment and not asking the perpetrator to prove that he didn’t commit the criminal act,” Dr Zahera Harb, a lecturer at City University in London who worked as a journalist in Lebanon for ten years, told VICE World News.
“Also, the fact that anonymity for the victim is not guaranteed during prosecution, might make it difficult for many women to come forward and press charges.”
Under the new law, sexual harassment can be defined as any unwelcome sexual advances or comments, including via technology. Convicted offenders could face up to four years in jail, as well as receiving high fines. In addition, the government has established a special fund at the Ministry of Social Affairs to assist victims.
The UN has described Lebanon as having “one of the most vibrant feminist movements” in the world. Yet despite this, much gender inequality remains. In the 2020 World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report, Lebanon was revealed to have “one of the highest overall gender gaps in the world,” ranking 145th out of 153 countries.
A report into the effects of the Beirut explosion in August 2020 showed gender-based violence to have increased as a result of the explosion. The study on the impact of the disaster, which was completed in conjunction with UN Women, revealed: “Sexual and gender-based violence risks have increased, exacerbated by factors such as multiple families living in crowded settings, a lack of public streetlights, household stress, and, according to some KIs [key indicators], an increase in military/police presence.”
A report published by UNICEF in 2018 revealed that female refugees are at a high risk of child marriage in Lebanon, with 29 percent of 15– to 29-year-old Syrian displaced girls in the country being married at the time of the report. Worryingly, the study also revealed that “of the 29 percent that were married, only 2 percent were enrolled in school or working”.
Aside from issues of sexual harassment and assault, the NCLW is pushing to address other forms of gender inequality. There are “major problems” that still needed to be addressed by the government, Joumblatt said, such as the “failure to pass a law that gives Lebanese women the right to transfer her nationality to her children.” This side-lining of women in the constitution has been widely criticised by many for years, including some Lebanese celebrities. Speaking to the BBC in 2015, Mexican American actor Salma Hayek – whose father is from Baabdat, Lebanon – called it “painful”, adding: “we are as Lebanese as the men are.”
The NCLW is also campaigning for amendments to Lebanon’s labour laws to make workplaces safer and more women-friendly. The amendments that they have submitted to Parliament include the introduction of mandatory breastfeeding areas for any institutions employing more than 15 people. This would mean that new mothers could return to work sooner and feel more comfortable at work. The NCLW is also proposing the introduction of nurseries or crèches for children “in the workplace, in private sector companies and institutions and in public institutions with at least 50 employees, having altogether 10 children under 3 years old.”
They are trying to lobby a legislature that is almost entirely made up of men — only 4.7 percent of MPs in Lebanon are women. “The lack of a woman’s quota in the law on parliamentary elections, or in the law on municipal elections….prevents women from becoming members of Parliament or members of any municipal council,” Joumblatt said. “This fact does not enable women to occupy political decision-making positions.”