Lebanon Must Declare Violence against Women a National Emergency

Ann Dismorr and Rachel Dore-Weeks
Swedish Ambassador and Head of UN Women in Lebanon Respectively

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.

Two weeks ago, on February 23, a woman was brutally assaulted by her ex-husband

The extreme violence generated brief outrage on social media and will quickly be forgotten by 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 percent of organizations in Lebanon that 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. Sweden is no exception.

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. 

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

In addition to physical injuries, violence against women causes long term trauma and depression, and can strip women of opportunities to engage in local or national politics, or the private sector. 

Such an absence has consequences for the entire country. Women’s employment is associated with significant education and health benefits for the family, while women’s political participation is associated with improvements in the quality of democracy and higher spending on health and education.  

Also, when this violence takes place during lockdowns, other household members – children, most notably – are more likely to witness it, normalize it and grow up to become violent themselves. 

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

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

Moreover, violence against women takes place in a context, in which male-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. Meanwhile, masculine identities characterized by power, control and militarism are often celebrated, as kindness, 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 in 2014 introduced Law 293 on combating domestic violence, and amended it last December. While gaps remain, the law is an important step forward in demanding accountability.

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

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

On this International Women’s Day we honor the work carried out by women’s rights and feminist civil society organizations in Lebanon 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 its partners, such as 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.

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.

As a first step, Lebanon must recognize the severity of the 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 needed 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, while current judicial protection orders should be unilaterally extended until periods of lockdown are over. This in addition to increasing the capacity of shelters in the country in order to protect and support women and 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.

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