Last month marked Women’s Day on 8 March. It was time to revise what Lebanon had achieved in its promotion of women’s rights and what it yet had to work on; particularly since it ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1996.
But even before ratifying the convention in 1996, Lebanon had achieved several important milestones towards gender equality, including:
n The granting of political rights to women (1953)
n The granting of equal inheritance rights unless opposed by a particular religion (1959)
n The right of married women to choose their citizenship (1960)
n The right to elect and be elected to local councils (1963)
n The abolition of the requirement of a husband’s permission for travel (1974)
n The abolition of the prohibition on the use of contraceptives (1983)
n The establishment of equal retirement ages and social security benefits for men and women (1987)
n The recognition of women’s signatures in real-estate procedures (1993)
n The ability of married women to pursue trade without husbands’ approval as well as women diplomats, married to foreigners, to pursue their diplomatic careers (1994)
n The recognition of married women’s rights in life-insurance policy procedures (1995)
It is noteworthy that in addition to granting political rights to women in 1953 and being party to conventions adopted by UNESCO in 1964 to enhance the recognition of women’s rights in education, Lebanon has, since 1972, ratified the two international covenant: on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights. Lebanon was also party to several other agreements such as those signed with the ILO on equal salary and equal employment opportunities for both sexes. In 2002, Lebanon also acceded to an agreement within the framework of the League of Arab States on the establishment of the Arab Women’s Organization, of which it is an active member.
Eliminating all Discrimination
By mid 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly as an international bill of rights. Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, CEDAW came to define what constitutes discrimination against women and to set up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. Countries that have ratified or acceded to the convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice and are committed to submit national reports, at least every four years, on measures they have taken to comply with their treaty obligations.
In 1996, Lebanon ratified the convention and made a commitment to include in its policies all mechanisms that promote women’s rights. And so, the state and national organizations went on to double their efforts in raising awareness on women’s rights and promoting ways that these rights can be respected. Examples of discrimination and violence against women were made public and action began to combat such violations through various penal measures. In fact, Lebanon ranked highest in its region with its 1995 score in the “Gender Empowerment Measure,” developed in the Arab Human Development Report 2002.
In addition, the number of female members of parliament has doubled in the last five years from 3 in 2000 to 6 in 2005 and the rate of female participation in elections processes has also noticeably increased. Another relatively recent arrangement is that signatures of both mother and father are now required when under-age children travel – not solely a father’s signature. These are examples of efforts to include women in the family decision making process.
It can also be safely said that within the country’s efforts to abolish illiteracy and provide affordable health services, women are indeed being targeted. Lebanon is witnessing an increase in the enrollment rates at all levels of education: primary, secondary and post-secondary – with an almost equal enrollment rate for women and men, and a shift is being noticed of women’s labor into new and less traditional sectors. The proportion of women working in the major professions – lawyers, engineers, physicians, pharmacists, judges, bank managers, media figures, university teachers, and researchers in the areas of literature, art and science – has increased considerably.
Unfortunately, reality still shows that the process of amending the Lebanese legislation to bring it into line with the principles of CEDAW is still far from complete. Lebanon’s legislation does not contain provisions guaranteeing equality on the basis of sex as required by the convention.
Upon reviewing the national report, CEDAW expressed concern at the mention of honor crimes receiving mitigated punishment (especially the fact that criminal law states that a rapist is exempt from punishment if he “agrees” to marry his victim) and that women are faced with traditional obstacles when attempting to report incidents of violence.
Elsewhere women still only occupy 6.1% of public offices and engage in only 14.7- 20% of economic activity. The labor law still allows discontinuation of service to pregnant employees, while single mothers (12.5% of families) remain within the low income bracket. The national HIV/AIDS programs does not target women, there are regular reports of several cases of domestic abuse and sexual harassment in the workplace. Finally, to date 4.9% of women nationwide are married between the ages of 15-19 (the percentage is more than double in areas such as Bint Jbeil and Akkar).
Most importantly, much of this discrimination is official! To this day the Lebanese government is adamant about reservations it had since ratifying CEDAW in 1996. In particular the equal rights of women to pass on nationality to their children, equal marriage rights, equal rights in matters relating to their children, equal rights and responsibilities in matters relating to guardianship, wardship, trusteeship and adoption, the right to choose a family name and finally the right to fair arbitration in disputes.
The first item, concerning the right to pass on one’s citizenship to one’s children, has caused uproar and was a dominant theme during the celebration of Women’s Day last month. Before 1946, a Lebanese woman who married a foreigner would lose her Lebanese nationality, and, just three years ago, working women were unable to receive fringe benefits like health care. But until today, the children of Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese men still cannot claim Lebanese citizenship or rights.
This issue was raised during the assessment of the National Lebanese Report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against women, and, according to the Lebanese representative presenting the report, this anomaly is due to the fact that each Lebanese is subject to the personal status laws (and courts) of the 18 recognized religious communities that regulate matters such as marriage, parenthood and inheritance. According to MP Ghinwa Jalloul, politicians are afraid that allowing women to pass their nationality on to their husbands and children would disturb the delicate balance of the confessional system and open the door to Palestinian assimilation. In any case, work is being done to push this case forward and make the state abide by the CEDAW.
One such commission is the National Commission for Lebanese Women which, as a monitoring and advisory body, presented the UN committee with Lebanon’s National Report and briefed EXECUTIVE on where Lebanon stands in obliging and failing to oblige.
During the past month, the commission organized two workshops in Lebanon in collaboration with ESCWA, the first was held for the media to explore ways in which awareness of CEDAW could be raised in the public and the steps that the media should take to allow for better absorption of the policies of different governmental and non-governmental organizations in the country. A recommendation was made to highlight the convention and distribute the key points of its manifesto on Women’s Day. And indeed, there was wide media coverage of the CEDAW on March 8.
The second workshop lasted three days and saw representatives from several ministries and government directorates discuss “the role of ministries and government offices in the preparation of the CEDAW report,” exploring the need for better monitoring and reporting mechanisms and raised awareness amongst officials from the council of ministers as well as the general state security and internal security services, on how different policies can affect women’s rights. Each participating department proposed concrete steps to better monitor such policies and report them, in collaboration with the National Commission, to the UN.
Director of the National Commission for Lebanese Women, Mrs. Joumana Moufarige, told EXECUTIVE that, although Lebanon currently falls short in abiding by its CEDAW commitment, it is witnessing progress. Women as ministers and members of parliament, although not proof that they are equal decision makers in official administrations and different sectors in Lebanon, is still a sign that the application of the Beijing work plan that calls for 30% female representation in parliamentary councils by the year 2005 is moving forward.
Finally, March 21 was Mother’s Day – and on this occasion a tribute must be paid to mothers of Lebanon who played a big role in movements for peace throughout history. Today, many of them remain stranded by their grief as they await their “disappeared” sons, kidnapped and imprisoned during decades of civil strife. Mother’s Day this year coincided with news that missing sons had been found, offering a respite from suffering to many mothers who have grieved too long.
Freedom of women in Lebanon is not measured by the commercialization of “openness” or “Westernization.” It is a matter of who decides the way people live, and whether everyone has equal right of access to development services. Issues of accountability, awareness of rights, monitoring of abuses, NGO involvement in constant reporting of women’s status, and action for equal opportunity to produce and consume, are key.