The Fight to Criminalize Violence Against Women in Lebanon

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by Marla Swanson

Kafa ("Enough") Violence & Exploitation is an organization in Lebanon focusing on fighting violence against women, child sexual abuse, and trafficking. The group works to eradicate gender-based violence through advocating for legal reform and change of policies and practices, and influencing public opinion. Kafa has been a grantee of the Open Society Foundations since 2007. After years of advocacy work by Kafa and other women’s and human rights groups, Lebanon now has a ground-breaking new domestic violence bill before the Parliament. We spoke with Zoya Rouhana, the director of Kafa.

How would you describe the current climate for human rights in Lebanon?

Unfortunately, Lebanon has had an unstable political environment resulting in a negative effect on the social situation. As the confessional divide among the people has become deeper, it has become more difficult for people to join hands and call for improving human rights conditions. Luckily, there has been relative stability in the security situation since the early 1990s, with the end of the civil war. In spite of outbreaks of war and local tensions over the years, as soon as there is relative stability, civil society organizations work to bring human rights issues back to the surface.

And now with revolutions taking place in different Arab countries, the climate of change in Lebanon is becoming more positive. Young people are more and more involved in calling for a secular country that can provide equal citizenship for all, without discrimination based on religion or gender. Civil society is trying to form a coalition of all organizations that have launched advocacy campaigns on specific demands, to gather all these demands and put them in one statement that reflects the NGO view of what they want in a secular country.

What are the major women’s rights issues specifically?

As for women’s issues, some have come to the fore, and major campaigns have been launched, such as the nationality campaigns, giving the Lebanese women the right to pass her nationality to her children and her husband. The Lebanese law does not enable women married to foreigners to pass their nationality on to their husbands or children. This creates a lot of problems, as they are considered foreigners and so deprived of access to public services such as schools and hospitals, not to mention the complications of marriage procedures, or obtaining working permits.

Also, women in Lebanon can face a high level of discrimination embodied explicitly and implicitly within the personal status laws. Lebanon has no civil law to govern family relationships. These are regulated by religious laws belonging to the 18 religious sects which exist in Lebanon—and all discriminate against women. All these factors hinder women’s participation in decision making, and subject them to violence, without any special legal protection.

Tell me how you first got involved in working as an activist on the issue of violence against women.

I’ve been involved in the fight for women’s rights since the early eighties. I grew up in a traditional, patriarchal community with clear cases of discrimination against women and girls. Since I was a young child, I witnessed the frustration many of my relatives felt when a girl was born. This, in addition to many other examples created my desire to challenge these traditions.

Were there any pivotal moments over the years for you and other activists in Lebanon working on issues of violence against women?

While preparing for the Beijing summit in 1995 (The UN's Fourth World Conference on Women), I had the chance to participate in organizing a public hearing, the first of its kind in the Arab world. These hearings were taking place in different parts of the world, where women victims of different forms of violence presented live testimonies on the violence they had been subjected to, which was ignored by society and treated as “normal” behavior.

The testimonies pushed all those present to delve deeper into the issue of women’s rights, to go to the root causes of those sufferings, like, why is it that men are considered to be superior to women, giving them the right to kill woman in the name of “honor” and to use abuse to keep women under control? The hearing in Beirut was somehow a turning point in the fight against violence against women in the Arab world.

What has happened with activism since that time?

After almost 15 years of struggle, we can say that at least in Lebanon, we’ve succeeded in breaking the silence that has historically surrounded the sufferings of women, and in raising the issue of violence against women as a public concern. We are proud that our struggle during this time has been rewarded by the government approving a law to protect women from family violence, which we are still waiting for the parliament to approve.

Can you tell me more about this new law? What is it you’ve been fighting for and why?

Over the years, we’ve received so many cases of abused women at our Listening and Counseling Center. Through these women, we identified the major gaps and obstacles women face when trying to escape an abusive situation or confront their abuser. It was clear there were no services provided for such women, except very limited ones offered by NGOs, and there were also no special laws dealing with abuse within the family.

In short, violence against women was not a public concern; it was regarded by officials and by society as a private issue that should be confined to the family. Civil society has been fighting for the recognition of this problem and it should be addressed by the Lebanese state. Combined with the realities women experience and the live testimonies of courageous women who are survivors of abuse, civil society organizations have succeeded in presenting the issue of violence against women as a societal problem affecting women from all sects and all social backgrounds. So we needed to call for special legislation to protect women from family violence.

Concretely, how did you achieve this?

With the help of a group of judges, lawyers, and representative from Internal Security Forces, Kafa was able to lay down a draft law, and later discuss it with other NGOs and other stakeholders. A coalition was formed, that Kafa coordinated, which has continually advocated for this law since 2008. Its main objective was to ratify the draft legislation for the protection of women from family violence through a campaign targeting concerned groups, so that the state would uphold its responsibility to protect all its citizens without discrimination. This law will represent a major tool for women and girls to report abuse and claim their right to a decent life.

Why is this legislation so ground-breaking and important?

Approving the law will reflect a political stance of the Lebanese State condemning violence perpetrated against women, considering it a crime. This would represent a major transformation in the way the Lebanese state has been dealing with women’s issues during the past years.

Which issues does the legislation specifically address?

First, it will criminalize all forms of family violence. Its specific objectives are to protect women, ensuring their privacy by initiating specialized units within security and judicial structures, establishing a specialized unit for family violence issues within the Interior Security Forces, securing a protection order for victims, and allowing the woman to lodge a legal complaint against the perpetrator. It means requiring the perpetrator to provide safe housing for the victim and her children, to cover all medical expenses resulting from violence, to pay alimony, and to seek rehabilitation services.

What is happening with this piece of legislation now?

The draft legislation was approved by the cabinet last April and is now with the parliament for discussion and final approval. But the political conflict that started to escalate last summer has affected the legislative role of the parliament. However, just last week, the joint committees of the Parliament resumed meeting and the law was added to the agenda. They decided to form a small committee for further examination. We asked for permission to attend the committee meetings. Meanwhile, we’re trying to meet with members individually.

Do you think it will be passed?

We have paid visits to most of the political parties represented in the Parliament and so far, not one party has declared its opposition to the law. However, the discussions they have will reflect the real position of the parties. In principle, the joint committees gave the small committee three weeks to study the law and get back to them. If approved, it will then pass to the General Assembly for final approval. But this last step should only be a formality.

Can you talk a bit about your recent work to raise the visibility of the prevalence of trafficking in women in Lebanon?

Our first step in raising visibility is to conduct a study of the situation. In recent years, Lebanon has become known as a sex tourism destination despite the fact that prostitution is illegal. Women from Eastern Europe and some other Arab countries enter Lebanon under what is called an “artist visa.” The visa puts women in a position vulnerable to trafficking. The research will help us identify awareness-raising and policy actions needed to increase visibility on the issue and advocate for preventive and protective measures.

In addition to the sex trafficking project, last year, we initiated a project on the situation of migrant domestic workers, looking at the situation of migrant domestic workers, particularly the sponsorship system, and the link to trafficking. Kafa has also submitted a report on migrant domestic workers to the Universal Periodic Review process at the UN , highlighting the vulnerable position in which the sponsorship system places workers.

A lot of people are probably not aware that trafficking exists in the Arab world, or that Lebanon was classified as a “high trafficking country” by the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons. Trafficking has become more and more visible, yet still very few NGOs in Lebanon focus on trafficked women. Why is this?

In Lebanon, trafficking is still a new concept. While Lebanon ratified the Palermo Protocol (the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children), it has yet to pass a law to combat trafficking and provide support for victims, although there is currently a draft law being considered by the government. Kafa recently partnered with other NGOs to provide feedback on it and coordinate activities, and we found that it has several weaknesses, especially in protecting victims.

Despite a growing acknowledgment of trafficking in Lebanon, many decision-makers, the police, judges, and others are still not aware of what trafficking is and how to assist victims. Identification of victims is also difficult and only a few organizations have developed programs specifically focusing on trafficking. Migrant women who enter under the “artist visa” or as domestic workers and who may be victims of trafficking are often sent back to their countries of origin without a thorough investigation to determine whether they have been trafficked.

Additionally, Lebanese women and others who are arrested for prostitution are often charged with a crime and sentenced to prison, and no efforts are made to determine whether they are victims of trafficking or not.

What are some other issues Kafa is working on?

A couple of major issues: one is work on is reforming the personal status codes that represent legal discrimination against women in their status within the family. Lifting Lebanon’s reservations on CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) will also be a major aim of women’s organizations and Kafa will be playing a big role in this regard, starting with a media campaign. Building on our experience with the coalition to protect women from family violence, we will be promoting collaborative work among NGOs to lobby for lifting the reservations.

Posted in: Middle East, Rights & Equality

Topics: Beijing summit, Convention on the Elimination of all Form of Discrimination against Women, gender-based violence, Kafa, Lebanon, Palermo Protocol, Protocol to Prevent Supress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, sex trafficking, United Nations, violence against women, women's rights.