On December 21, 2020, Lebanon passed the landmark Anti-Sexual Harassment Law No. 205, which finally brought the disconcerting matter to light, providing a starting point to criminalize sexual harassment and offering protections for victims of gender-based violence. Law No. 205 comes after years of lobbying and activism from various groups within the country, such as efforts led by the Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership (CIBL) for Women, along with its partner network and in coordination with activist groups. They consider the implementation of the law as a solid starting point to work toward decreasing the levels of gender-based violence, particularly in the workplace.
“It has been years since feminist activists, gender machineries, individual politicians and human rights organizations have been pushing for protections, drafting legislative suggestions, and mobilizing for change,” shares Charlotte Karam, PhD, adjunct professor and director of international partnerships at CIBL for Women. “Although the new Law No. 205 is far from perfect, it is an important milestone in the trajectory of efforts to ensure safer workplaces for women and other vulnerable groups,” she comments.
The key challenges tied to the law concern the proposed fund by the Ministry of Social Affairs, intended to offer support to the victims of sexual harassment and to rehabilitate the perpetrators. The Ministry’s ability to establish the fund, given the current economic crisis and the limited financial capabilities of the Lebanese government are being questioned. In addition, the lack of mechanisms to safely report gender-based violence is still not covered under the law.
A rising number of gender-based violence cases, many go unreported
As is the case in most contexts around the world, when the level of external stresses increases, a rise in violence against women is seen. Lebanon is no different. The escalation of gender-based violence in Lebanon is alarming, with a recent surge in the number of cases reported formally and informally over the last few years. According to the Gender Based Violence Annual Report – 2020 issued by UNFPA Lebanon, women and girls are heavily impacted by harassment, on the streets, at work and online, with cases significantly on the rise, especially after the COVID-19 outbreak.
At present, the economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the repercussions of the Beirut Port blast, are contributing to increasing vulnerability and therefore exposure to risk. Those most at risk in Lebanon, according to the UNFPA report, are elderly women, women and adolescent girls, individuals with disabilities, migrant workers and the LGBTQ+ community. Concerned stakeholders, including public sector offices, legal bodies, civil society organizations, and employers are not properly equipped to deal with the growing number of gender-based violence cases in the country. Indeed, even before the crises hit, little legal recourse existed to provide legislative protections. At work, for example, very limited legal recourse was available to protect employees against sexual harassment. The persistent lack of anti-sexual harassment policies and associated reporting mechanisms to ensure the required victim and witness protections is hindering progress towards safe and equitable workplaces.
While official data pertaining to sexual harassment and gender-based violence in the workplace collected in Lebanon and across the region is still scarce, findings from the regional KIP Index by CIBL for Women at the Olayan School of Business (OSB), American University of Beirut (AUB), show that the absence of formal sexual harassment and discrimination policies force women to leave the workplace when subjected to such incidents, a prevalent finding across the Arab MENA region.
What does the law offer victims, employers and the general public?
The Anti-Sexual Harassment Law No. 205, does not limit the protections against sexual harassment to just the workplace, but also covers harassment in “any place.” The law also takes into consideration the dynamics of power and authority in social relations, and provides varying degrees of punishment based on the crime and the perpetrator’s status. For example, should the perpetrator have a position of dominance or authority over the victim, a heftier punishment applies, the penalty increases and incidents do not have to be recurrent. Moreover, heavier penalties have been imposed, as per the law, related to cases where the perpetrator is a supervisor or a public officer, if the perpetrator abused of their right or if the victim is a minor or has special needs. In the last case, the offence becomes a felony and is no longer considered as a misdemeanor.
With the passing of the law, perpetrators of sexual harassment could spend up to four years in prison and pay hefty fines (up to 50 times the minimum wage). Furthermore, the law does not exclude the possibility of disciplinary sanctions that the perpetrator may face at work, and guarantees the victim’s right to claim compensation for the moral damages incurred. Protections from potential retaliation in the workplace is also included in the law for both the victim and any witnesses.
The main concerns with Law No. 205
Seemingly absent from the law, are formal and safe channels of reporting sexual harassment, as well as recommended legal actions for victims. In addition, the wording of the law leaves much room for interpretation, and can be taken out of context. CIBL for Women, along with its partner network including UN Women, the Government of Canada, UNDP, the Government of Sweden, The Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB), ABAAD and Seeds for Legal Initiatives, have been working to raise awareness on what constitutes sexual harassment and gender-based violence, interpreting the law for the general public for it to be effectively applied. They have also been actively working with Lebanese employers to support them in applying the law through supporting the drafting of internal policies, hosting workshops to equip them with the tools needed to effectively implement and enforce the law in the workplace.
Mitra Tauk, equity/title IX coordinator at AUB believes that Law No. 205 should provide clearer definitions, to avoid room for misinterpretation of the law, which may be affected by “unconscious biases of people, and more seriously, of the decision maker.”
The new anti-sexual harassment law also fails to provide support or further information for employers in the implementation of the law in Lebanese workplaces – which is deemed indispensable in the fight against sexual harassment. So what can employers do to better cultivate safer workplaces and to ensure that the law is enforced?
With anti-sexual harassment policies in place, how should employer cultures shift?
Employers need to have clear policies in place that are customized for their work environment, acknowledging the specifics of the workplace and industry context.
The policy should start with a commitment to a safe work environment and provide a clear and comprehensive definition of what constitutes sexual harassment, including verbal and non-verbal advances. The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines sexual harassment as “a sex-based behavior that is unwelcome and offensive to its recipient.” Sexual harassment exists in two main forms, the first is related to job benefits, whereby promotions, pay increases or job security are linked to different forms of forced or suggested engagement in sexual behavior. And the second form is through intimidation or humiliation of the victim, creating an uncomfortable workplace setting. Employers also need to affirm that sexual harassment is a form of gender based violence that can happen between the same and opposite sex / gender parties. In doing so, employers can begin to ensure a safer working environment, free from sexual harassment, with zero tolerance policies in place. Including specific examples is very important as it assists in leaving little room for misinterpretation.
In addition, internal policies should also include zero tolerance clauses, clear reporting systems, investigation options and outcomes, internal dispute resolution methods/options, disciplinary measures and sanctions, as well as consequences for intentionally false accusations or void complaints.
Employers must also take all necessary measures to ensure the victim/survivor’s protection and the protection of the witnesses, at all stages of the initial and preliminary investigation and during formal and legal procedures. The law clearly states that no discrimination or infringement of the legally established rights may be directed at the victim/survivor who refused to submit to acts of harassment. In other words, employers cannot, whether directly or indirectly, punish or infringe on the victim/survivor’s terms of pay, career development, transfer, or renewal of work contract, nor impose any disciplinary penalties against them.
“An integral and effective anti-sexual harassment policy must ensure a safe working environment free from sexual harassment through a zero-tolerance policy,” shares Layal Sakr, attorney at law at SEEDS For Legal Initiatives. She states that workplace protections can be improved by putting in place “clear reporting, investigation and sanctioning mechanisms, along with ensuring equality, confidentiality and protection of victims and witnesses,”
She adds that in the case of a sexual harassment claim, “the employers’ role is integral, to try and engage and educate the victim about the investigation process and outcome, to make well informed decisions. Employers when met with cases of sexual harassment, need to take it upon themselves to commit to a thorough, prompt and confidential investigation (where possible) of the reported incident/complaint. And, in cases where it is proven that the incident did occur, the employer should punish the harasser in a manner proportionate to the enormity of the act.“
Another key element is for employers to ensure that they devise a strategy for implementation for clear communication of the policy and training for staff and managers alike. Having a carefully worded anti-sexual harassment policy does not suffice, for internal workplace cultures to shift. The purpose of the policy needs to be central to its implementation, and ongoing awareness sessions and workshops are needed to ensure employees understand it, and are not afraid to “use” it. These sessions can be used to encourage employees to “speak up” and in doing so, break taboos and stereotypes. According to Joelle Bou Abboud, HOLDAL Group’s general legal counsel & SDG 5 ambassador, 360 degree awareness sessions are an integral part of the company’s change management journey and overall social promise.
“Alongside releasing an internal sexual harassment policy, continuous awareness sessions have been fundamental – for the “victim” to know that she or he has been through qualifies as sexual harassment and she or he has all the tools to do something about it,” says Bou Abboud. HOLDAL is also working to raise awareness on sexual harassment (and any other form of harassment) in the workplace at every stage, to break the stereotypes, starting with onboarding sessions, then implementing daily monitoring and instant reporting mechanisms.
“The policy and the process are of utmost importance, but beyond this, the ownership and engagement of all internal and external stakeholders is required for safer workplaces,” Bou Abboud opines.
Finally, internal anti-sexual harassment policies also need to be improved and tailored over time based on the size of the organization, the unique experiences of employees and any challenges that may impact the business or its employees.
Can Lebanon be free from sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment and gender-based violence are prevalent across the globe, even in countries with zero tolerance policies and harsh punishments for the perpetrators. CIBL for Women believes the passing Law No. 205 is an encouraging first step to protect the Lebanese community and in specific, employees, from being subject to sexual harassment and gender-based violence. However, without the enforcement of the law within public and private institutions, as well as clear and safe reporting mechanisms, perpetrators will continue to subject innocent victims to abuse, and victims may continue to suffer in silence.