MON 20 - 5 - 2024
Date: Mar 28, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
What’s wrong with today’s gender equality agenda?
Rania Al Jazairi Dabbous
Fifteen years ago, I embarked on the human rights journey, as a practitioner, when I first joined the United Nations. When reflecting about the progress of empowering women at all levels, I concluded that legal, structural and behavioral challenges impede the achievement of gender equality and the advancement of women. These challenges have been well covered and documented by literature and research; therefore I would like to focus in this article on a somewhat different challenge that hasn’t been sufficiently explored yet.

In my opinion, the limited success that we are witnessing whether in Lebanon or more generally in the Arab world in empowering women has to do with one underreported contributing factor. Most awareness-raising activities and capacity-building programs that focus on promoting gender equality seem to target mostly women and women’s non-governmental organizations. That is substantiated by the number of women and women’s NGOs which attend and benefit from such projects. This situation results in a failure to expand the discussion of promoting gender equality beyond this small group of “already converted” activists to the public at large. In addition, when examining the list of participants in any given conference that focuses on gender issues, one observes that the invitation is almost never extended to human rights NGOs that address other human rights violation such as infringements in civil, economic or political rights, prisoners’ rights, prohibition of torture etc.

In fact, very few events actually mainstream gender and ensure that for each developmental challenge, a gender lens is adopted to explore the different needs of women and men in any given subject.

This main definition of gender relations, i.e. examining the socially constructed roles of men and women and the power relation in access to resources, is also lost in academia and some research centers.

Sexologist John Money was the first who introduced the terminological distinction between biological sex and gender as a role in 1955. Before his work, it was “uncommon to use the word gender to refer to anything but grammatical categories.” However, Money’s “meaning of the word did not become widespread until the 1970s, when feminist theory embraced the concept of a distinction between biological sex and the social construct of gender.”

Throughout the years though, instead of focusing on the interplay of power relations between the two sexes, and while more publications and papers had gender as a title, unfortunately, these documents ended up focusing only on women issues, disregarding the gender dynamics.

For example, how can a publication on child marriage focus on a sample of girls and women and interview only them? The other side of the story involves men and should also be heard: the men they marry, the father who allows the marriage, members of the clergy who carry out the process etc. It is only by focusing on men and involving them, whether in research or capacity-building and awareness-raising activities, that society can change. In fact, in Tunisia, it was only when gender issues became a societal concern i.e. involving both men and women who marched in the streets calling for equality, that change actually happened and was sustained especially after the 2011 revolution.

In Lebanon, any demonstration that relates to gender equality, whether it is nationality law or violence against women etc. translates into a handful of women activists (with very few men) leading the protests in the street. The gender agenda thus seems hijacked only by few women’s organizations and imprisoned in a circle that includes the same group of activists.

How can one overcome this? How can one expand the call for equality beyond the few institutions whose mandate is achieving gender equality?

One step in the right direction has been recently embraced by a few institutions in Lebanon, both governmental, such as the National Commission for Lebanese Women, and non-governmental such as ABAAD and KAFA. Most recently, capacity-building activities and campaigns now target men as well as different stakeholders. For example, ABAAD and KAFA are focusing on the rehabilitation of perpetrators of violence against women. In addition, the proposed amendments to Lebanese Law 293 on the protection of women and family members from domestic violence that were submitted recently to the Lebanese Parliament include a provision on making the rehabilitation of the perpetrators of violence mandatory by law. NCLW is also targeting men in their different campaigns and engaging, for example, religious leaders in discussions over a draft law to set a minimum age for marriage. Lebanon remains one of the very few countries in the Arab world which has not yet prohibited child marriage.

A final recommendation relates to the governance structures of some NGOs working on empowering women. Some of these institutions have women founders and presidents for life. Unless these NGOs adopt a more democratic governance structure, empowering thus other women as well, their mission - and credibility - will be only partially fulfilled.

Rania Al Jazairi Dabbous is a board member of the National Commission for Lebanese Women.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 28, 2019, on page 6.

The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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