General: Lebanon: Women Human Right Defenders are leading the change

04.11.19

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) stands in solidarity with all women human rights defenders (WHRDs) on the frontlines of the ongoing peaceful protests sparked by the deterioration of the economic, social and political situation in Lebanon. The demonstrations started as a response to the failure of the government to deal with a long period of economic deterioration, and mass demonstrations erupted following a number of planned taxes on gasoline, tobacco and online phone calls and messaging, through apps such as WhatsApp. 

GCHR supports the demands of WHRDs and the fierce feminists in Lebanon who are leading, supporting and working tirelessly to have their basic rights guaranteed, while claim their spaces on every front. GCHR is echoing their voices to be heard on a larger scale and encourages their continued efforts to ensure that all protests remain peaceful and inclusive. 

The protests have been joined by people of all genders and religious backgrounds. GCHR would like to emphasise the importance of the opportunity to bring women’s rights forward within this unified movement and that any change that may consequently emerge from the protests should emphasise changing discriminatory laws and practices. Lebanese women and feminists have occupied the streets of major Lebanese cities, to demand the end of gender discrimination as one of the main demands. This can only be achieved by focusing on one priority, which is changing the government through holistic reform.

Women's issues are interconnected with all other demands raised by the current movement, including the right for women to pass their nationality on to their children and changing other discriminatory laws which offer impunity to men for abuse through the current legal system. Protesters have raised issues of femicideshonour killingsmarital rape and gender-based violence as the pressing issues that need to be addressed once the current government changes.

The women who have filled squares and roads have acted as a buffer between the security forces and the protesters, their fearless participation have given the protests a strong feminist dimension. The chants, the calls, the demands and the creativity of the social movement has been evident in every aspect of the protests, the presence of women balanced the tension, and paved the way for a leadership role that they have been denied for far too long. Lebanon ranks at 140 out of 149 countries in the Global Gap Report, which covers a wide range of factors related to women’s position economically, in education, health and political empowerment. The popular movement is a chance to end this discrimination. 

Nadine Jouni, a 29-years-old dedicated women’s rights defender who passed away on 06 October 2019 in a traffic accident on the Damour-Saida highway, was present in all the protests. She spent her life fighting to change discriminatory laws. A few hours before her death, Jouni was supposed to participate in the civil protests in downtown Beirut against the worsening living conditions. Throughout her career she was campaigning on behalf of thousands of women deprived of their children because of religious courts. Her campaign aimed to change the custody law to be just and fair for women. 

Family law in Lebanon falls exclusively under the jurisdiction of religious courts, meaning each sect dictates rules regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody.  Jouni had experienced this discrimination herself, as she was prohibited from seeing Karam, her only child, after she was divorced from an abusive husband. 

Jouni was the architect of several virtual campaigns and street demonstrations against the rape of underage girls (‘Shame on Who’) and against child marriage (‘Not before 18’). The minimum age for marriage differs according to the different religious laws, ranging from nine to 18.  She spoke out loudly, stirring women and men in virtual campaigns and in marches that filled Beirut's streets against rape and assault of girls (the “Maine Feltan” campaign). 

In 2014, Lebanon passed a law that addresses domestic violence. However, a survey published in 2016 suggested that 31 percent of women in Lebanon had experienced domestic violence. GCHR encourages the Lebanese authorities to be mindful of their obligation to combat discrimination, not only by legislative means. GCHR reiterates the importance of changing discriminatory laws, but changing the laws alone will not be sufficient.

Cries of victory celebrations were heard across Lebanese cities on Tuesday 29 October as Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation after the waves of demonstration that snow-balled in size and had significant impact within Lebanon and beyond since 17 October 2019. The Prime Minister’s resignation has sparked a glimmer of hope that change is possible, despite the unfortunate events that took place earlier that day, when government-backed supporters violently targeted peaceful protestors, including women human rights defenders, while security forces remained silent bystanders witnessing and allowing such violations to take place in the middle of the Lebanese capital of Beirut. 

GCHR therefore urges the concerned authorities and relevant actors on the ground in Lebanon to: 

●      Ensure that WHRDs are enabled and protected to practice their rights of peaceful assembly without any fear of reprisals, including from state and non-state actors; 

●      Reform the discriminatory laws that affect the well-being, activism and the social, economic and political participation of women;

●      Invest all available resources to achieve justice, dignity and freedom in Lebanese society and at the same time support the work of WHRDs, including Lebanese and refugee women’s rights activists; in order to achieve positive change and sustainable peace, coexistence and equality; and

●      Respect and adhere to the country’s legal commitments to uphold the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).