By Olivia Alabaster
BEIRUT: Greater efforts are needed to confront the issue of violence against women in Lebanon, activists urged Friday, at a roundtable discussion organized by the Middle East Peace Initiative at the U.S. Embassy on the occasion of the global 16-day campaign to highlight the issue.
The country’s key women’s activists met Friday at the Zouk Mikhael Youth and Cultural Center and discussed the need for Parliament to pass the draft law on domestic violence, but also stressed a need for wider societal awareness of the issues involved before they can be properly addressed.
Opening the session, Randall Kaaliau, MEPI coordinator for Lebanon, introduced the origins of the campaign, falling as it does between Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Dec. 10, U.N. Human Rights Day. One in three women around the world is affected by domestic violence.
“The Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, declared this period should be globally used to raise awareness on gender-based violence and violence against women,” Kaaliau said. However, he added, “This is not about American ideals: it’s about you, and the Lebanese must address these issues.”
Issues discussed during the roundtable focused on the draft law against domestic violence, which is currently not illegal, and the removal of the criminalization of marital rape clause by the parliamentary sub-committee discussing the draft.
Daniela Chemali, from the Center of Women in Crisis, said that a cultural understanding, or misunderstanding, of domestic violence has resulted in its decriminalization thus far. “In our culture people don’t admit that there is violence in the house,” she said.
A lack of awareness on individual rights has exacerbated the problem, according to Najla Bizri, from the Lebanese Family Planning Association. “Many women think it is their husband’s right to do this to them. She often does not know her own rights.”
Brigitte Tchalabian, from the nongovernmental organization Justice Without Frontiers, which provides legal support to women in need, agreed that many victims of domestic violence do not even see it as a crime. “Husbands often believe they own their wife,” she added.
Many activists also agreed that when women did recognize that their rights were being abused, they were often reticent to report such crimes to the police.
Randa Yassir, from the Lebanese Council to Resist Violence Against Women, said that when “Women come to our counseling sessions and we tell them to go to the police, they don’t, as if they go to the police they are told to sort out the problem themselves, and given no support.”
Elisabeth Sioufi, a lawyer and director of the Institute of Human Rights, said that the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces was aware of the problem: “that police do not listen.” However she feels assured they are working to address it, part of which includes the hiring of 500 female staff, specifically designed to address the needs of women and children, which are due to start work in April.
In terms of the removal of the marital rape clause from the draft law, Yassir believes that parliamentarians prioritize their self interests above the rights of women.
“Parliamentarians think ‘Well today I am in power, but tomorrow maybe I won’t be.’ So they don’t see the point in risking losing the support of powerful religious leaders. They need to step up and take responsibility,” she said.
Religious bodies have criticized the draft law on domestic violence, with the two highest Muslim bodies in the country saying the new law would lead to the breakup of the family.
Najla Tabet Chada, director of the migrant center at Caritas, said that it was imperative to now hold similar roundtable discussions with the country’s religious leaders to go over any objections to the draft law.