SUN 5 - 4 - 2020
Feb 2, 2019
The Daily Star
The problem with labels: The women’s ministry controversy
Thursday night, moments after the new government was announced, women rushed to social media to denounce the title of a new Ministry of State for the Social and Economic Rehabilitation of Youth and Women.
Activists debated whether “rehabilitation” or “qualification” was the correct translation from the Arabic term. But the overall sense was that the ministry’s title was demeaning.
Women from civil society, business, media, academia and Parliament were quick to express their outrage on Twitter and Facebook. They succeeded in being echoed by mediation from the President of the National Commission for Lebanese Women Claudine Aoun Roukoz, who responded that the NCLW had made a request to change the title of the ministry, probably to replace “rehabilitation” with “empowerment.”
The entire fiasco was not seen as very significant by some people on Twitter who said that we were being “too feminist” and that our efforts should be focused elsewhere.
But labels matter a lot in my experience and in the research I have been conducting on women’s political empowerment, or its failure in recent years.
Why labels matter
The policy and development world is shaped by power and politics. Much of the struggle of power and politics is over whose priorities and values get to the top of the policy agenda.
In a country where stark gender inequalities are enshrined by law, culture and daily practice, it is inevitable that the policy world is shaped by the priorities of men.
Of those men, religious leaders continue to have the final say over women’s bodily rights, custody, marriage, divorce, rape and inheritance. But right now our male politicians have prioritized, at least through lip service, a commitment to enacting some reforms that would pave the way for Lebanon to receive the pledges made at the CEDRE conference.
Of those reforms, women’s and youth empowerment are prerequisites to making structural reforms to Lebanon’s economy.
But labels carry meaning that is propagated through programs and projects, which in turn create a political culture around the role of women in Lebanon’s economy.
The reasons that women constitute a very low percentage of the workforce say less about women’s individual capacity than the structure of our economy and society.
In saying that women need empowerment, or worse, rehabilitation, we place blame on women and we focus our efforts on empowering them. Real empowerment is a process of sharing power and Lebanese women continue to lack access to power and decision-making over their own lives. We start thinking that empowerment can happen through training workshops, short-term grants and fancy projects that target women in rural areas. There is nothing bad about empowering a vulnerable population. But targeting women’s skills alone without addressing structural obstacles to women’s economic participation will yield marginal results, at best.
Who designs labels
I have worked for enough time in development and with governments across the region to know how labels are designed and who designs them.
In a world where donors get to dictate local agendas and provide conditional aid, labels are agreed upon in conference rooms and corridors by foreign consultants who know how to shape their interests and align them with local agendas. It is a carrot-and-stick approach to supporting countries like Lebanon, both technically and financially. The trick for us as local actors is to gain the influence needed to also help shape foreign agendas and ensure that they address the root causes of Lebanon’s economic problems.
On Jan. 19, the World Bank launched a facility at the high-level Mashreq Conference on Women’s Empowerment. The Lebanese National Action Plan, which I participated in, committed to increasing women’s economic participation by 5 percent in the next five years. To avoid another wasted opportunity of mismanagement of funds and resources, much like Paris I to II, the Lebanese government, private sector and civil society need to be engaged in re-relabeling titles and identifying new priorities. The National Action Plan has set targets that the new ministry can play a role in advancing. But labels alone without alignment in a holistic approach will not address the structural obstacles women face in the workplace, but also in the household.
What this ministry can do
Luckily, the ministry mandated to address the social and economic “empowerment” of women is this time headed by a woman. Violette Khairallah Safadi has had a stellar career in media, communications and the private sector and has devoted the last several years to social and economic development projects in Tripoli.
But although her expertise and insights will add value to the debate around policies and programs, we know from precedent that a ministry of state has fewer executive powers than a normal ministry. We have seen this in the last Cabinet’s Ministry of State for Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of State for Refugee Affairs. The structure of these offices allows them to function more on a project basis than on long-term policies and programs. The mere fact that the ministry is aimed at serving both youth and women indicates that it regards the problems of youth and women to be similar.
Access to the job market and unemployment rates among youth are not the same as those among women. A recent study by OXFAM shows that unpaid work done by women is worth 43 times Apple’s annual turnover.
The obstacles facing women stem not from the fact that women lack skills, but that they lack a fair opportunity to get hired, promoted and retained. They earn less than their male counterparts, do most of the unpaid work, are exposed to violence and sexual harassment and have little control over their own bodies and civil statuses. Women do not pass nationality to their children and as such cannot be the providers of social security to their families.
Because labels matter and because Lebanese governmental and non-governmental actors need to be pushing their own policy agendas, this ministry can create precedent by adopting a holistic approach to the social and economic empowerment of women.
By linking the empowerment label to that of gender equity, the minister can set a new standard in how Lebanon receives aid, designs projects and reforms its laws. There is no empowerment without freedom from oppressive religious courts, unequal pay and exposition to daily psychological and physical violence.
In a country where until recently rapists were encouraged to marry their victims to escape prosecution, we cannot push women to be empowered.
The “empowerment” cannot be programmed. It needs to be genuine and it needs to address the patriarchal structures that make it impossible for women to have equal chances to men.
The rest was, and may remain, fancy labels designed by fancy people in fancy offices.
The shift in label from “rehabilitation” to “empowerment” is a welcome gesture. Now the real work should start, and it should address power and politics first and foremost, and not only skill-building for Lebanese women.
Carmen Geha is an assistant professor of public administration at the American University of Beirut.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 02, 2019, on page 3.
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