BEIRUT — Over the past year, women in Lebanon and around the world faced increased rates of domestic violence as the COVID-19 lockdown forced families into long periods of confinement, but the year also brought some long-awaited legal protections for Lebanese women.
In December, the Lebanese Parliament passed a landmark law criminalizing sexual harassment and approved amendments intended to strengthen the country’s existing law on domestic violence. Both laws took effect earlier this month.
But with Lebanon now back in lockdown and facing a potentially prolonged period of closure, how much of a difference will these new laws make to women who may now be back in 24/7 confinement with their abusers?
Women’s rights activists and legal experts who spoke to L’Orient Today hailed the laws as a step forward but pointed to gaps that remain, particularly in the context of a lockdown that has now been extended at least until Feb. 8.
Increased danger during lockdown
According to Abaad, a human rights organization that advocates for gender equality in Lebanon, calls to its domestic violence hotlines increased by 110 percent in March 2020, when the country first went into lockdown, compared to the previous year. According to the group’s records, 11 women were killed as a result of domestic violence during this first lockdown.
Leila Awada, a lawyer with the NGO Kafa (enough) Violence and Exploitation, said lockdowns can exacerbate existing situations of abuse because the abuser is at home every day, giving the victim no break from the abusive environment.
“The victim also does not have an opportunity to escape the home or go to specific NGOs,” Awada said. “We believe that during lockdown there are more cases than those reported because not all ladies have means to communicate or report about abuse when the abuser is present at home 24/7.”
That was the case for Salma, a 22-year-old woman who was stuck at home with her abusive father during the current lockdown before finding shelter via an NGO. Going to work used to give her space “to breathe a little,” Salma told L’Orient Today, but with the lockdown, she had “no chance to breathe.” On top of that, in the past, she would sometimes go to her sister’s house to escape, but since the pandemic, her sister had stopped welcoming visitors.
Increased protections and remaining gaps
Lebanon’s domestic violence law was first passed in 2014. While passing the law was hailed as an achievement for women’s rights, advocates said it left some major gaps and have been pushing since then to remedy them. With the amendments passed last year, they at least partially succeeded.
The amended law allows for prosecuting not only abusive spouses but ex-spouses as well through the public prosecution. Kafa’s Awada noted that shifting to the public prosecution allows for the Internal Security Forces to intervene and protect the victim when deemed necessary.
Also under the amended law, a judge can include children up to age 13 in the protection decision filed by the mother, so that if she decides to flee the house she can take her children, regardless of the status law her sect follows — religious courts generally set an age at which custody automatically goes to the mother or the father in the event of a divorce, with most of the rules strongly favoring fathers.
“This encourages women to leave home for protection, given that they used to refrain from doing that for the sake of the children,” Aliaa Awada, a feminist activist and co-founder and co-director of the Fe-Male NGO, told L’Orient Today. “This amendment also takes away some authority from men and religious courts.”
While the strengthened domestic violence law may provide increased protection, advocates said gaps remain both in the law and in how it is applied.
For instance, Aliaa Awada noted that the protection decision does not force the violator into rehabilitation sessions, which could contribute to decreasing violence cases in the future. The amended law also allows men, as well as women, to apply for protection. While some men do experience abuse, Kafa warned that some husbands might take advantage and submit unjustified protection requests to defame women.
Kafa’s Leila Awada also noted that seven years after the initial issuance of the domestic abuse law, a specialized domestic violence unit in the security forces has not been formed. Thus, domestic violence cases are often investigated by officers with no special training in handling abuse cases, meaning that they may be less sensitive in dealing with abuse survivors and lack experience in investigating abuse cases.
This becomes a particular issue during lockdowns, when women have fewer options to escape from abusers. During the lockdown, abuse victims can call an Internal Security Forces’ hotline (1745) to report their case. Members of the ISF then go to the house to help the victim get out or force the abuser to leave instead. After that, urgent matters judges conduct online sessions with the victim to issue a protection decision via email.
Leila Awada said the procedures had been generally effective during past lockdowns, but advocates and abuse survivors said the government should have given more consideration to protecting domestic violence victims during the closure.
“NGOs that advocate for women are not exempt during lockdowns, so the Internal Security Forces is at the forefront for providing help and protection to women,” said Fe-Male’s Aliaa Awada. “The hotline should be more active, and the ISF should have a certain readiness to respond to reports and complaints. They should learn from the previous lockdowns and update their response plan accordingly.”
Instead, the issue of domestic violence has remained an afterthought in the current lockdown, she said.
“When the government sets a response plan, they do not take vulnerable populations into account and they do not produce gender sensitive plans like other countries,” she said. “For example, the government should have established shelters for women to resort to when they receive protection decisions from urgent matters [judges], or else where should she go to when they file their complaint? Back home to the abuser?”
Salma, the woman who escaped her abusive father, agreed. The government should “create shelters for victims of abuse as a protective measure during COVID-19, so that the domestic abuse law makes sense in quarantine,” she said.
Sexual harassment law
Kafa’s Leila Awada noted that in general, domestic violence is a greater problem than sexual harassment during lockdown periods.
“During the lockdown, harassment is going to take place between family members rather than in public or work spaces,” she said.
But sexual harassment remains a major issue in Lebanon, advocates said, and one that until recently was not addressed in the law at all.
With the law that finally passed in December, Aliaa Awada noted, Lebanon joined Algeria, Morocco and Tunasia as one of the few Arab countries that criminalize sexual harassment.
Danielle Howayek, a lawyer with Abaad, also noted with pride that Lebanon’s law is the first of its kind in the Arab region to protect women from cyber-harassment.
In its current form, the law punishes anyone who commits the crime of sexual harassment with one to 12 months in prison and/or a fine that ranges between three and 10 times the official minimum wage of LL675,000. If the crime is committed against either a juvenile or a person with special needs, the crime is upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony punishable by two to four years in prison.
If the harassment is committed in a workplace, the penalty is a minimum of six months and a maximum of two years of imprisonment, or a fine ranging between 10 to 20 times the official minimum wage. In most cases, the harassment must be a recurring behavior, not a one-time occurrence, to fall under the law.
Advocates and legal experts have questioned whether the fines present an effective deterrent given the devaluation of the Lebanese lira, and pointed to the lack of a protective mechanism like that in the domestic violence law, which forces the abuser to stay a certain distance away from the victim.
Some also said the law as currently written does not go far enough in protecting employees from abusive employers. And Aliaa Awada noted that limiting the definition of harassment to repeated behavior “subjects the victim to risk if she or he is to wait for another [act of] harassment to take place.”
Some also raised concerns that the burden of proof required may be difficult for most victims to meet.
But despite the gaps, Howayek said the law is an important step forward.
“No law is complete,” she said. “They get legislated, then updated constantly.”
A push for a comprehensive law
While Lebanon has taken piecemeal steps forward in recent years, advocates said a more unified approach is needed.
Kafa’s Leila Awada said that in her view, Parliament is not concerned about protecting women but passes women’s rights proposals to boast about them in reports submitted to the United Nations.
“This explains why there are always gaps in such laws, simply because they are not tailored to serve the purpose of protecting women’s rights,” she said.
Kafa, along with the National Commission for Lebanese Women, the Justice Ministry and the Internal Security Forces, is drafting a comprehensive law to combat violence against women.
The proposal would merge protection issues specific to women, including sexual harassment, domestic abuse, child marriage and sexual assault, into a single law that would outline protection and prevention measures along with prosecution and compensation to victims.
According to Leila Awada, having one law that protects women specifically is more effective in securing their rights than having segmented ones that extend to the wider population but mention women. She also noted that a unified personal status bill is being worked on.
“Kafa believes that the comprehensive law and a unified personal status law for women will ensure a legal framework that combats violence against women in the household and outside it,” she said.
For victims, it cannot come soon enough.