A community effort

The man putting women first

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Executive sat down with the country’s first-ever minister of state for women’s affairs, Jean Oghassabian. The ministry was launched one year ago with a mandate to empower and protect women and promote and develop gender equality in Lebanon.

E   This is the first term for you as minister of women’s affairs and, in fact, the first time that a women’s affairs ministry has existed in Lebanon. Why was there a need for such a ministry?

This ministry was formed because Prime Minister [Saad Hariri] is convinced that [women’s rights] need to be put in the spotlight [as issues] related to human values and respect for all people. This ministry is showing that women’s rights are the responsibility of the whole society, and men should participate on many levels to reach complete equality because, for me, women’s issues are not limited to women only. For that reason, the prime minister, with the approval of the president of the republic, decided to establish this ministry.

What I tried to do [during my term in office to date] is to create momentum all over the country. I always wanted to prove that the Lebanese woman has huge capacity and potential. As she has succeeded in the private sector in all levels and industries, she also has the capability to succeed in [state] institutions. For the upcoming elections, we have a campaign [to increase] female involvement in politics. We conducted a conference, and [recently] organized a workshop for [female] candidates in the elections, [both for] candidates representing political parties and for independent candidates. We have a media campaign, “Half of society and half of Parliament,” and, so far, I have attended maybe 15 to 18 conferences everywhere in Lebanon to promote the idea that women in Lebanon have potential. When we talk about half of society, it’s not a question of number; it’s a question of power. It is a question of the future. If you don’t have women in Parliament, it’s not [only] a loss for women; it is a loss for Parliament, a loss for the government, and a loss for the whole country, because the country is not benefiting from a big part of the potential [that exists].

E   You say that there has been progress, but what guarantees do the Lebanese people have that this ministry will continue to exist after the elections and the formation of the new cabinet?

This is a question that is even asked by different stakeholders in Lebanon working on women’s issues, such as UN agencies, NGOs, embassies, and donors. I could perhaps accept such a question if upon my appointment as minister I had said, “Okay, I am a minister now, [so] I will have one assistant and [do the bare minimum] of work on my own.” [In such a case], the new government might just say, “We don’t have a [real women’s affairs] ministry,” and it would be completely neglected [after the next elections]. But this is not the case. Actually, we have established a complete ministry with staff, with a budget, and with a lot of projects in process of being implemented. We have a lot of upcoming projects with international donors such as the World Bank, UN, ESCWA, UN Women, and many embassies. We have so far [presented] six amendments to [existing] laws and [drafted] new laws.

E   Aside from the promotion of female candidacies in the upcoming parliamentary elections, what has the ministry been doing to encourage and develop greater participation of women in the overall public sector in Lebanon?

I proposed to the prime minister and to the government to have a quota in all the nominations of the boards in different institutions. To date, in all these nominations issued under the current cabinet, we [had a] minimum [of] 25 percent of women nominees in security institutions. The judiciary [and] the committee controlling the elections have  28 percent women, and in the Economic and Social Council of Lebanon we have 27 percent female representation.

E    That is achieved by having a quota system?

It’s not by law, but it’s a decision taken by the government because I pushed this issue, and we are following up on that. Every time [the government] has to make appointments to any public position, we should have minimum 30 percent women; we reached 25 to 27 percent, but we are going up.

E   And are there any data indicators that you look at for measuring the achieved progress in ensuring women’s rights?

Now we are working with ESCWA Women, UNFPA, the Ministry of Justice, and with the Central Administration of Statistics [to establish] indicators, and also to study the impact of [gender-based] violence on society, as a societal issue and as an economic and educational issue.

E   So, if we talk about crimes against women, have you seen an increase in the number of reported cases?

Yes. Many more people are now reporting, but we may have [incidents of] violence that nobody knows about, because, in some societies or some families, [people] don’t want to talk about [such incidents]. This goes back to cultural issues, and it is for this reason that I decided to educate primary school children from the ages of 10 to 12, or even eight years old, on the negative effects that violence against women has on family relations. We prepared the concept note and are talking to various [potential] donors about it.

E   Is it correct to say that this is a project that is not yet being implemented today, and that you are looking for funding from international sources?

We are looking for funding, and we can find it, because, as I mentioned in the beginning, there are a lot of donors who are willing to fund [projects of] this ministry. The budget that I have from the government is only a working budget: I can cover  salaries and some small expenses, but the projects are financed by donors. I decided to establish this ministry as a UNDP program. For that reason, I [was able] to move quickly in everything. This [collaboration] also gives me credibility in front of international agencies and donors. I had the ability to [organize] all this in a short time because I was the minister for administrative reform in 2005. [The Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform] is also a UNDP program which gets working capital from the government and ensures the funding of the other projects from donors.

I also worked with international donors in the private sector on many projects related to public sector improvement. This gave me some knowhow to move quickly, and also to benefit from all assets that are available inside the country. But if they had brought somebody that is not “in the business” as a minister, he would have taken time to learn all these issues. I think that we have a lot of achievements that will guarantee that this ministry will be permanent and sustainable. As a lot of involvement in many projects with international donors is at hand today, I think that any consideration [to terminate the ministry] by the coming government would be a mistake and send a very bad message to the international community.

E   Moving forward, what is the ministry’s legislative roadmap?

I do my homework. So far, I succeeded in getting the approval of the government for three amendments. The first is to punish sexual harassment. It has not been approved by the Parliament yet, but it is not easy to get approval. It will take three to four months because it has to be approved by all ministries and by Ministry of Justice and the legislative council. This one was approved by the cabinet, [as was] the amendment to eliminate discrimination in the provisions of the social security law. [Also] we have the three-day paternity leave. People told me it doesn’t work. I said for me it is not question of three days; it’s a question of creating a new culture and convictions that the father has the same responsibilities as the woman when the child is born and not only logistical responsibilities. 

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

Jeremy Arbid

Jeremy is Executive's in house energy and public policy analyst.