Events aplenty, but little progress for women’s rights

BEIRUT: Campaigns to highlight the dearth of women’s rights abound ahead of International Women’s Day, but experts said significant improvements to the status of women in Lebanon are still far off. It’s not enough to simply underline the issue ahead of the designated day, which falls on March 8, to achieve breakthroughs in issues hindering the advancement of Lebanese women, activists say.
In Lebanon in particular, the day is meant to pay respect to women who have fallen victim to domestic abuse, those who cannot bequeath their nationality to their children or those unable to legally marry outside of their religion.
The plethora of events has included a conference entitled “Women on the Front Lines” by the May Chidiac Foundation Wednesday. The international day will also be observed Friday at the Lebanese American University by the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, which will launch a national campaign “Look Where We Still Are,” aiming to adjust discriminatory laws.
“What women need is more than just events held by organizations,” said Manar Zeaiter, a lawyer and activist with the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering, adding that the urge to see real political change must be matched with long-term strategies to see it through.
“We don’t act haphazardly; our work is based on existing realities.”
Current laws, according to Zeaiter, continue to hamper the rights of Lebanese women, including the citizenship and personal status laws. The former does not permit a Lebanese woman married to a foreign national to pass on her nationality to her children or husband.
Human Rights Watch released a report in January emphasizing that personal status laws, which are confession-based, are inherently discriminatory against women, limiting their rights in areas such as divorce and child care, for example.
Lebanon is among the states that ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly.
Lebanon ratified the convention but altered articles – namely Article 9, paragraph 2 and Article 16 paragraph 1 – relating to equal nationality rights and adopting measures to eliminate discrimination against women in matters related to the family and marriage. The amendments caused an uproar among Lebanese women’s rights advocates who are to this day engaged in efforts to reverse them.
But 2014 was still considered a year of progress in the arena of women’s rights, as Law 293, known as the Protection of Women and Family Against Domestic Violence, was approved after a lengthy battle. Maternity leave has also been lengthened, from 49 to 70 days.
There remains much more to accomplish, said Caroline Succar Slaiby, the vice president of the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering. The struggle for women’s rights shouldn’t be limited to the March 8 international day alone.
“Lobbying [for women’s rights] should be all year round,” Slaiby said, adding that persistent activism must put pressure on society to change. “Everyone is working, but we are in need of more lobby associations to press demands.”
Zeina Maalouf, assistant administrative director at the National Commission for Lebanese Women, said designating a special day to commemorate women was vital to raise awareness about women’s issues.
“This is an international day, so of course people want to highlight it,” Maalouf said.
“The number of people [engaged with women’s rights issues] has increased and this is a good sign. If there wasn’t a need then this number wouldn’t have increased,” she said, praising the work of women’s rights organizations.
She stressed that work is taking place on the ground to advance women’s rights but admitted more needed to be done.
“It’s not enough to work during the week [before International Women’s Day]. One needs to work all year round,” she said. “Let’s be realistic, what has been ingrained for years will not be eradicated quickly.”
Women’s rights do not only relate to changing discriminatory laws, she said, but also reversing counterproductive mindsets. To this day, some women themselves don’t believe in their abilities, which can stall the work of activists, she added.
In a report released by the World Economic Forum in October 2014 Lebanon was ranked the 8th worst country when it came to gender equality and the second worst for women’s participation in politics.
In Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s current government, there is only one female, Alice Shabtini, the minister for the displaced.
As for Parliament, among the 128 lawmakers there are only four female MPs: March 14 MPs Bahia Hariri, Strida Geagea, Nayla Tueniand Free Patriotic Movement MP Gilberte Zwein.
Though Lebanon did not formally amend CEDAW articles relating to discrimination against women in public and political life, a report released by NCLW demonstrated that the number of female candidates running for the legislature decreased from 14 in 2005 to 12 in 2009. Though the number of candidates increased to 38 in 2013, elections were not held as Parliament’s mandate was extended.
Political parties could be a starting point to lobby for more female representation in public life, experts agreed. Slaiby, for instance, was critical of Lebanese politicians who use the excuse of a lack of stability as a pretext for not giving women’s issues more attention. Political parties, she said, play an important role in enhancing the women’s participation in civic life.
“They are the ones that allow women to participate in politics,” she said. “Female party members can then act as the link between the parties they represent and society.”

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