Lebanon Must Declare Violence against Women a National Emergency

Date: Tuesday, March 9, 2021

[Op-ed]

Ann Dismorr, Swedish Ambassador; Rachel Dore-Weeks, Head of UN Women in Lebanon.

On February 23rd, 2 weeks ago, a woman was brutally assaulted by her ex-husband.

The extreme violence inflicted on her generated brief outrage on social media and will quickly be forgotten to everyone but her.

The form of violence she was subjected to is so common and pervasive that it has become normal; an expected part of our everyday lives and news cycles—and for too many, part and parcel of being a woman.

In 2018, it was estimated that one in three married women in Lebanon experienced violence from their male relatives. Since then, this number has surged, compounded by Lebanon’s health, economic, social and political crises. Fifty-three per cent of organisations in Lebanon who help sexual and gender-based violence survivors report receiving a significantly higher number of calls during lockdown periods, identifying household confinement and economic hardship as the primary causes. This is unfortunately part of a global trend, and Sweden is no exception.

This violence has significant consequences on women and their families, and on societies as a whole.

And when this violence takes place during lockdowns, other household members—children, notably—are more likely to witnesses it, normalize it and can grow up to be violent themselves.

Yet, despite the increase in violence against women in Lebanon over the last year, we have heard no calls to action and no emergency committees formed.  

That this violence occurs most commonly in the home—the one place women are told they are the safest—pushes it out of public view and justifies it as a private matter, to be handled privately.

Moreover, it takes place in a context in which wale-dominated power structures underpin the economy, the political system and social customs. Lebanon’s 15 personal status laws entrench this by, amongst other things, recognising a husband’s right to obtain his ‘marital rights’ without consent, while masculine identities characterized by power, control and militarism are often celebrated, and kindness and empathy, cooperation, and compromise, are often viewed as signs of weakness.

Consequently, violence against women is at best brushed aside as an individual tragedy, and at worst, justified as legitimate and acceptable.

After decades of advocacy, Lebanon introduced Law 293 in 2014 on combating domestic, and amended the law this last December.  While gaps remain, the law is an important step forward in demanding accountability for violence against women.

Yet, violence against women continues to take place with extensive impunity across the country, ensuring a clear message for its perpetrators: this crime will go unpunished.

This is a national emergency that demands urgent, sustained action.

This International Women’s Day we honor the work carried out by women’s rights and feminist civil society organizations in Lebanon over the last year to expose and combat this shadow pandemic. We are inspired by the women and men throughout Lebanon that are working tirelessly in their communities to rebuild Lebanon in a way that embeds equality between men and women. The UN and partners like Sweden have an important responsibility to strengthen and enhance their work. We call for their efforts to be matched with urgent action from the highest levels.  

As a first step, Lebanon must recognize the severity of this problem and enact an emergency response plan to address violence against women and girls. This must be followed with funding, policies, campaigning and political will to end this scourge. As matters of priority, the national 1745 hotline and forensic medical examinations must be made free of charge, so that financial means do not constitute a barrier to saving lives. Lebanon’s judicial structures must hold perpetrators to account and uphold the dignity and rights of survivors and all current judicial protection orders should be unilaterally extended until periods of lockdown are over. This is in addition to increasing the capacity of shelters in the country to protect and support women and their children who are in danger.

Violence against women is still seen by too many as acceptable and too often normalized. But it is far from normal – we must stop letting it be.