Archive | February, 2009

Seawater intrusion threatening Beirut water supplies

20 Feb

BEIRUT: Climate change, high population density and overexploitation of groundwater resources has lead to massive saltwater intrusion in the greater Beirut area, a leading hydrogeologist said on Thursday.

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Memo to remove confession from records is ‘not enough’

14 Feb

By Dalila Mahdawi               Friday, February 13, 2009

BEIRUT: Just one day after Interior Minister Ziad Baroud issued a memorandum allowing citizens to remove their confessional identity from their Civil Registry Records, a number of Lebanese political analysts and civil society activists have said the measure does not go far enough to tackle Lebanon’s confessional political system.

The memo, which was circulated on Wednesday, stipulated that the registrar should accept requests to remove a person’s religious identity and replace it with a slash sign ( / ). Although Baroud’s move was welcomed by civil society organizations and political analysts, many said it was merely a cosmetic change that would make little real difference to people’s lives as long as Lebanon’s political system remained rooted in sectarianism.

“I think this is an exceedingly important and positive first step on an issue that has long been a demand of secular and civil society groups,” said the director of public policy think tank Carnegie Middle East Center, Paul Salem.

But he noted that the move to remove religious affiliations from government records would create a number of problems for those who chose to do so. There are no secular family courts in Lebanon – citizens are instead referred to state-subsidized courts run by their religious sects which implement their own personal status and family laws. Those who choose to remove their sectarian affiliation from official documentation would therefore no longer be registered in religious courts and it is not yet clear where they would be referred. “What needs to happen is for these people to be covered constitutionally and legislatively,” Salem said, urging the government to address the issue.

While he also hoped the move would also pressure the government to begin talking “seriously about de-confessionalizing Lebanese politics,” Salem was careful to emphasize that this did not necessarily suggest a weakening in people’s religiosity. “I hope political and religious figures do not take it as such,” he said.

Nadim Houry, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Baroud’s move was “a welcome but insufficient step” for a society with an “embedded” confessional system. “While people can now remove their confessional status from civil records, their confession will continue to govern their lives and the political office they run for,” Houry said. “It doesn’t get said enough, but sectarianism in Lebanon is discriminatory. If you’re Shiite, you can never dream of becoming president,” a position reserved for Maronites.

Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, director of the Lebanese American University’s Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, agreed. “The fact is, this [memo] doesn’t change anything. If I want to get married, divorced or to adopt, I still have to go to a religious court. The system will still work in a sectarian manner.”

Salem, Houry and Dabbous-Sensenig all said Baroud’s memo would need to be followed up with moves on creating secular personal and family status laws.

For Nadine Farghal of the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform, the move also raised other questions. A possible follow-up law “would be to have a secular electoral system,” she said.

For some, the move came much too late. “While this step is highly welcomed, it is a decree that should have been introduced more than 30 years ago,” the web-based Middle East Times wrote in an editorial on Thursday. “The absence of one’s religious affiliation on the national identity card could have saved the lives of thousands who were mindlessly killed during the Civil War, based purely on what religion was marked on their ID cards.”

 Interior Ministry officials were not available for comment.

Activists press Beirut to end discrimination against women

13 Feb

By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

BEIRUT: Gender equality activists came together in Beirut on Friday to urge Lebanon to lift reservations on the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), after Morocco became the first Arab country to drop all reservations to the document.

Beirut-based non-governmental organization The Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD.A), organized a press conference at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA) in Beirut that was attended by several Arab ambassadors, Lebanese officials and ESCWA Executive Secretary Badr Omar AlDafa. The conference was held to mark Arab Women’s Day, celebrated annually on February 1.

Addressing the crowd, CRTD.A Director Lina Abou-Habib applauded Morocco’s decision to drop all reservations to CEDAW in December. “This decision crowns the years of struggle for Arab women,” she said. “We hope that Morocco’s action will motivate other Arab countries to commit to women’s rights through the lifting of all reservations to CEDAW.”

CRTD.A is regional coordinator of the Nationality Campaign which has for the last seven years advocated reform of Arab laws that prohibit women from passing on their nationality to their families.

While Lebanon is technically party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, it has yet to ratify the convention, citing like many other Middle Eastern countries, reservations on Section 2, Article 9, which specifies women’s equal rights to nationality.

 

Lebanese law allows male citizens married to foreigners to pass their nationality onto their wives and children, but does not permit the same for Lebanese women. According to the Nationality Campaign, there are 1,100 Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese. Denied Lebanese nationality, their families are required to pay regular residency permit fees and face serious obstacles entering the job market and obtaining affordable education or health care.

Speaking to The Daily Star on Sunday, Abou Habib said that rights activists had been encouraged by Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud’s recent drafting of a law that grants Lebanese citizenship to the families of Lebanese women. In late January, Barroud promised the draft law would be discussed and ratified “ahead of the parliamentary elections” in June.

“This is probably the most concrete step taken by the Lebanese government in addressing gender inequality,” Abou Habib said of Baroud’s proposed law. “We hope that the law will come into effect soon and that it does not place any reservations on the nationality of the father,” specifically regarding Palestinians. She said she hoped rights groups would be included in consultations regarding the drafting of the new law. “So long as citizens are not equal because of their gender, religion or class, we should stop calling Lebanon a country of freedom and democracy.”

Palestinians pump up Lebanese economy – study

13 Feb

Despite employment obstacles, refugee community doesn’t burden state’s social safety net
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Tuesday, February 03, 2009

BEIRUT: Despite facing severe work restrictions, most Palestinian refugee households have at least one family member who is employed, constitute 10 per cent of all private consumption in Lebanon, and do not burden the Lebanese welfare system, a recent report has found.

The Najdeh (Welfare) Association, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization (NGO), published the report examining the contributions of Palestinian refugees to the Lebanese economy in January with funding from aid agencies Diakonia and Christian Aid, as part of its “right to work” campaign.

The study is the result of a survey of 1,500 households in eight refugee camps across Lebanon and a number of focus group discussions, and assesses the income of Palestinian refugees, challenges to and perceptions of work, and their contribution to the Lebanese economy. According to Najdeh, the study “constitutes a paradigm shift in research on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon from examining employability to examining the contribution to the economy of the host country Lebanon.”

Under Lebanese law, Palestinian refugees are barred from all but the most menial occupations. Nonetheless, the report found one third of the individuals sampled worked, 91.1 of households had a member who worked, and roughly 40 per cent were searching for work. Only 1.7 per cent of those surveyed had work permits, a fact the report said “renders the Palestinian refugee labor force invisible in official statistics” and exacerbates their socioeconomic marginalization.

Najdeh also found there was “disequilibrium in the contribution to the workforce among men and women typical to the region: women constitute only 20 per cent of those who work between ages 15 to 64 years.” No change to this disequilibrium had occurred since a similar report was published a decade ago, the report said.

Some 31.1 per cent of men of working age (defined as 15-64 years old) were not currently in employment, compared to 83.2 per cent of women in the same age group. More women were found to work between the ages of 40-44 and 55-65, the report found, because “women go to work after their children grow up” in line with their traditional gender role as homemakers, or because elder women “have already been involved in the workforce since their youth.”

Most men, meanwhile, worked when they were younger, between the ages of 25 and 29, and 35-39, in keeping with their time-honored gender role as breadwinner. However, significantly more men of working age were illiterate compared to their women counterparts. “This phenomenon may be considered a crude indicator of school dropouts,” Najdeh said.

Most Palestinian men and women worked in the private service sector, with men working predominantly in construction, industry, transport and agriculture. More women, meanwhile, were employed in the NGO sector or by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Because of “limited work opportunities for Palestinian refugees outside” their camps, most of the men and women surveyed were found to work within or on the peripheries of the camps.

Perhaps surprisingly, the report found that a greater proportion (67 per cent) of employed women worked full-time, compared to 62 per cent of men, who more often engaged “in seasonal, occasional and other work patterns.” Furthermore, more employed women (48.6 per cent) were employed by an establishment, whereas 49.6 per cent of men worked for an “individual employer.” Men were also more likely to stop working due to health problems.

Most men (59.6 per cent) and women (55.1 per cent) said they were “somewhat satisfied” with their current work environment, but “twice the proportion of women express being ‘very satisfied’ with health and safety conditions at work” compared to men (21.7 and 10.8 per cent respectively). This may be because more men engage in occupations with greater safety hazards, stated the report.

The majority of both men and women expressed dissatisfaction with their low income levels, the report added. Median monthly wages were $260-266 for men and $188-200 for women. An overwhelming majority (84 per cent) of Palestinian households furthermore believed there were no work prospects for their children in Lebanon, a perspective perhaps compounded by the fact the median monthly household income of Palestinian refugees had declined from $260-266.7 in 2007 to $108-112 “during the first half of 2008.” In addition, 54.9 per cent of households said they were supported financially by remittances from emigrant family members.

Individuals living with chronic illness constituted 16 per cent of the sample population in the report, 6.5 per cent of whom attributed their illness to occupation; 4.3 per cent of those with disabilities likewise attributed their disability to occupation. The report emphasized the difficulties these individuals faced, as because they are not legally supposed to work, they cannot claim insurance from UNRWA for occupational injuries. Consequently, “patients suffering from occupational injuries and their aftermath are vulnerable to financial as well as health-related catastrophes.”

Although Palestinian refugees cannot legally contribute much to the Lebanese economy through employment, the sheer amount of them living in the country (more than 400,000) means they count for 10 per cent ($352 million) of all private consumption in Lebanon. Food, healthcare and rent constitute their top spending priorities.

The report also found that despite a 60-year presence in Lebanon and extreme vulnerability as a group, Palestinian refugees “do not appear to have constituted a burden on the safety net system provided by the Lebanese welfare system.” The report stated UNRWA, NGOs and faith-based organizations represented the primary safety net for the Palestinian refugee community.

Palestinians also contributed to “invigorating” the areas surrounding their camps by creating low-cost markets for low-income and other marginalized communities in Lebanon. The “Sabra, Ein el-Hilweh and Nahr al-Bared camp markets are recognized as major informal economic hubs for the poor,” said the report, adding that the destruction of Nahr al-Bared during the battles of 2007 had “resulted in a gap in the Akkar” region in northern Lebanon for such communities.

Concluding the report, Najdeh spoke of the importance of granting Palestinian refugees the right to work and called for “implementing a formal economic strategic partnership between the Lebanese economic community and the Palestinian refugee economic community.” Najdeh also recommended allowing highly trained professionals to work in the Lebanese market “when needed,” and forming a dialogue committee between the Lebanese and Palestinian economic communities. “This would enable Palestinian refugees to work more effectively toward their own welfare and the development of the country hosting them,” said the report.