Government ministries and civil society groups in the capital Beirut are collaborating for the first time to tackle the issue of violence against women, the open discussion of which is still considered taboo in some segments of Lebanese society.
Falling under the international “16 days of Activism against Gender Violence” campaign: [http://www.irinnews.org/broken-bodies/default.asp], a three-day workshop was organised by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in cooperation with the Lebanese Health and Social Affairs ministries, to discuss the issue.
Workshop participants are expected to make official recommendations to the government this week.
UNDP in Lebanon has promised to integrate the workshop’s findings into a “national social development action plan” for which it will provide financial assistance.
Lina Khodr Abd al-Samad, member of the Women’s Lebanese Council, expressed relief that state officialdom was taking greater notice of the subject. “It’s high-time the government took over,” she said. “Until now, the development and sustainability of the country have depended on civil society alone.”
According to Faiza Benhadid, UNFPA gender and socio-cultural advisor, violence against women in Lebanon and other Arab countries takes many forms. These include the selective abortion of female foetuses; early marriage; female genital cutting; marital rape; and honour crimes.
In 2002, the UNFPA conducted a three-month, nation-wide survey of 1,419 women aged 14 to 80 years old. Of these, 494 (35 percent) had been exposed to some form of abuse, while 307 (21 percent) knew of a family member who had been abused.
The survey showed husbands to be the perpetrators in 65 percent of cases; husbands along with others in 13 percent; family members other than the husband in eight percent; and mothers-in-law in four percent of cases.
In 2005, local police authorities registered more than 2,844 reports of violence against women. Of these, 1,053 were cases of assault; 592 cases of threatening behaviour; 31 rape cases; 177 attempted murders; and 85 murders.
Some observers suspect that real incidence of gender-based abuse is actually much higher, since women often do not report attacks to police for fear of retribution or having their reputations impugned.
“Police only intervene if the victim lodges a complaint,” said Colonel Elie Abi Khalil, president of the Central Penal Researchers , adding that the Lebanese Penal Code does not recognise the concept of gender-based violence.
Even among workshop participants, however, the root causes of the phenomenon remain open to question. Commenting on the testimony of one abuse victim, for example, both men and women at the workshop privately suggested that, at least in some cases, women themselves were occasionally to blame for the violence done them.
According to Jika Keserwani, a social worker at a local NGO Kafa, such thinking is “forbidden.” “This is what we’re fighting – this male chauvinistic spirit found not only in men but also in women,” she said.
Informal recommendations made by workshop participants included: better cooperation between government institutions and civil society groups; more research aimed at obtaining accurate statistics of abuse; more training for medical and support staffs; and, perhaps most importantly, legislation outlawing gender-based violence altogether.
While the latter proposal is sure to face an uphill battle, activists note that the issue is receiving a higher degree of attention, on a political level, than ever before.
“The time when our grandmothers remained silent for the sake of avoiding shame and dishonour is over,” Lebanon’s Social Affairs minister Nayla Mouawad declared recently.
Health Minister Jawad Khalifeh, while pointing out that numerous studies of the phenomenon had been carried out in the past, conceded: “The truth is, they were forgotten and ignored.”