Beirut, LEBANON:In 1776, the first lady of the United States, Abigail Adams, wrote a letter to her husband John and to Congress, imploring her countrymen not to overlook women’s interests. “Remember the ladies,” she urged, adding with considerable defiance: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
More than 230 years later and thousands of miles away in tiny Lebanon, Adam’s words have gained renewed urgency. In mid-June, after five months of intense negotiations, Prime Minister Najib Mikati finally unveiled his new Cabinet. Not one of his 30 appointees is a woman.
“Women hold up half the sky,” as the Chinese proverb goes, but in many parts of the world they are still being forgotten by the governments that are supposed to represent them.
While the absence of women from political life is typical in other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, Lebanese women have enjoyed at least symbolic representation in their government since being given the right to vote in 1952. Before the previous government was brought down in January, there were two women in the Cabinet, holding the finance and state portfolios, and four women among 128 parliamentarians. Though this amounts to a paltry 3.1 percent, most activists were optimistic it would, in time, gradually increase.
If being deprived a share of the Cabinet wasn’t bad enough for Lebanese women, their role in society has been further called into question by the disappointing comments of the country’s most senior Sunni leader. Grand Mufti Mohammad Qabbani recently condemned efforts to introduce legislation protecting women from domestic violence as a Western plot against Muslim family values.
These seem like strange words indeed when one recalls Lebanese citizen Charles Malik’s pioneering role in drafting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a document firmly committed to ending gender discrimination and one that the Lebanese have enshrined in their Constitution. Mr. Qabbani seems to have overlooked the fact that Lebanon helped articulate those very values he now accuses of being foreign and which many other Muslim leaders would call an integral part of their religious beliefs.
Unfortunately, the masculinization of Lebanon’s government is just the latest in a string of major blows to women’s political participation in the Arab world as a whole.
Women were at the helm of the uprisings in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt, but only one has been appointed to the new 27-member Cabinet in Cairo and plans for a woman’s quota introduced last year have been abandoned. In Tunisia, where women formerly held over a quarter of parliamentary seats, they head only two of 31 ministries now. Developments in Lebanon thus may well herald the beginning of retrogressive steps on women’s rights throughout the region.
This apparent sleepwalking backwards increasingly goes against the grain of global attitudes towards women, whose participation in decision-making is now an internationally recognized marker of social progress and is on the rise every year.
The United Nations has, since 2000, led initiatives to mainstream women’s active role in the public life of their countries, issuing several resolutions in this regard. Lebanon should embrace its historical role as a defender of human rights and implement those resolutions in good faith.
Without women, Lebanon’s political jigsaw puzzle is glaringly incomplete and calls for transformative change will go unanswered. As one local group put it recently, “How can we arrive at social justice for all when we exclude half of society in the decision-making process?”
Women must become an integral part of decision-making bodies if Lebanon and other Arab countries want to enjoy real democracy and truly serve the needs and aspirations of their people.
The political participation of women is a matter of justice, not a privilege they should have to fight for. The sisters of Abigail Adams should not have to wait any longer for their rights to be recognized.
When Joanna Bailey (not her real name), a British journalist formerly based in Lebanon, became the victim of a sexual assault in Beirut, she sought help at a local police station. As she was giving her statement, the police dragged her assailant into the room. The man had been beaten up, and was subjected to further violence in front of her.
“One of the officers took off his belt and began beating him with it for what felt like ten minutes.” When Bailey asked the officers to stop, “they said it was the only way he would learn,” she recalls.
“After that they made him strip down to his underwear in front of me and jog on the spot for about 30 minutes.” Bailey left feeling not only profoundly disturbed by the assault on her, but distressed at the extrajudicial punishment meted out to her attacker.
Such stories of ritual humiliation, mistreatment and beatings are familiar to many detainees in Lebanon. A lack of training and poor human rights awareness among police officers means many turn to violence to obtain confessions from suspects.
According to a report released earlier this year by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), around 60 percent of detainees experience some form of torture or mistreatment. One death as a result of torture was recorded in 2010, the report said.
Those suspected of espionage, drug dealing and religious extremism are most likely to be subjected to abuse by the police. All this takes place in a culture of impunity, says Wadih Al-Asmar, secretary- general of CLDH: “Police officers are not well trained and there is no real accountability. In the very few cases that have been investigated, the results remain confidential.”
Prison conditions are just as bleak as those at police stations, with inmates being locked away without trial for years in grossly overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. With almost no rehabilitation services available, most prisoners spend their days confined to their cells, chain-smoking, chatting and, when tempers flare, fighting.
In the last three years, 400 people arrested on security charges have been subjected to procedure violations that made their detention arbitrary, the CLDH report found.
“It’s a disaster,” says Ghassan Moukheiber, an MP who heads the Lebanese Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and who has produced a detailed report on prison reform. “The situation is dire. I qualify prisons as fitting into the following categories – bad, very bad or inhumane. The prison conditions are themselves equal to torture, cruel and degrading treatment.”
Lebanon’s 20 prisons can officially hold 3,653 inmates, but in 2010 provided an uncomfortable abode to some 5,324 prisoners, an earlier CLDH report found. Roumieh, Lebanon’s biggest men’s prison, built with a maximum capacity of 1,500 inmates, held about 3,500. According to Moukheiber, with the exception of Roumieh, none of Lebanon’s prisons were built specifically as penitentiaries.
Lebanon is a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as its Optional Protocol, but has not yet fulfilled its obligation to establish a National Preventative Mechanism against torture. It is also several years overdue in submitting a report to the Convention’s Committee on the measures it is taking to implement the treaty.
In a damning 2009 report to the Lebanese government by General Ashraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), the body which overlooks prison administration, two-thirds of all prisoners were found to be awaiting sentencing. Around 250 foreign prisoners remained in prison after completing their sentences, largely due to deportation complications, Rifi said.
Most were imprisoned for lacking the necessary paperwork to remain in Lebanon and included a number of refugees and asylum seekers.
With minimal funding being allocated to penitentiaries, Moukheiber told IPS that the Lebanese state was failing to provide prisoners with the vital rehabilitation, health and educational services they needed in order to reintegrate back into society.
But despite the gloomy outlook, criminologist Omar Nashabe insists slow improvements are under way. The number of inmates at Roumieh has fallen, he says. “That’s a big step forward because it allows the prison administration to better control the prison.”
However, basic services and security remain problematic. Prisoners often have to undertake hunger strikes or other extreme measures in order to access medical care, and escape attempts are frequent.
In April, Roumieh saw one of the biggest prison riots in Lebanese history. Prisoners were able to break down doors and take control of much of the prison in a stand-off which resulted in the death of four inmates.
Although the government has allocated five million dollars to refurbish the prison, Nashabe admits the figure won’t even cover repair costs. “Some of the doors inside the prison are still without locks and there are still problems with electricity and water.”
Nevertheless, Nashabe says that the riot prompted the Lebanese judicial authorities to be more flexible with incarceration as a pre-trial measure and punishment. A five-year plan to transfer management of the prisons from the ISF to a specialised body within the Justice Ministry is also under way, he says.
But according to Moukheiber, “it is not a panacea just to switch prison administration from one ministry to another. The appropriate solution is much more complex,” involving a string of measures, including building new facilities, improving access to healthcare, rehabilitation services and legal aid, and specialised training of prison staff and judges.
For many prisoners, such improvements will come too late. Twenty-seven year-old Marwan (not his real name) has been in prison for two years awaiting sentencing for drug dealing. “It’s unacceptable that I haven’t been sentenced yet,” he told IPS via a smart phone he’d managed to smuggle behind bars.
The police “haven’t got any evidence against me, only testimonies from a few people.” Marwan, who hasn’t yet been able to meet with a lawyer, says he expects to be incarcerated “at least another three years.” (END)
BEIRUT, 11 July 2011 (IRIN) – Of all Lebanon’s communities the Dom, described by some researchers as “the Gypsies of Lebanon”, are the most marginalized: Up to 68 percent of Dom children do not attend school, according to a new report.
“Their access to legal protection, health, education, adequate shelter and food is very difficult, verging on impossible,” said Charles Nasrallah, director of Insan Association, an NGO that promotes respect for the rights of vulnerable communities. “Such problems were compounded by acute social marginalization.”
The Dom are also sometimes described as `Nawwar’, an Arabic word carrying derogatory connotations of poor hygiene, laziness, begging and questionable morality. Many, according to the report released on 8 July by Insan and Swiss NGO Terre des Hommes (TDH), have Lebanese citizenship, but deeply engrained discrimination has rendered them worse off even than Palestinian refugees.
The results of the study “are screaming out for all actors on the humanitarian landscape to re-think their current programming initiatives and bring the Dom people and their children into the humanitarian space in Lebanon,” said Jason Squire, country delegate of TDH Lebanon. “The wider community in Lebanon does not live and experience the same daily hardships that the Dom face,” he added.
The Dom are a poorly understood ethnic minority living across a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, the occupied Palestinian territory, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Like gypsy communities in Europe, historians believe the Dom are descendants of travelling performers who migrated westwards from India centuries ago.
A recent study published by the American University of Beirut on poverty among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon noted that most live on about $2.7 per person per day. According to Kristen Hope, TDH Dom project manager, “about 9 percent of Palestinians in Lebanon are living below the poverty line.”
By contrast, the TDH/Insan report found that “over 30 percent of the Dom sampled are living on less than one dollar a day.”
According to think-tank The Dom Research Centre, few Dom in the cities have steady jobs, and can be seen begging in the streets, playing drums, flutes or other instruments at weddings and parties, fortune-telling and doing manual labour.
Insan Association and TDH interviewed Dom community members in four locations, and found that many live in rudimentary shanty towns where most homes are not connected to a sewage network. Most mothers are deprived of maternal health care and many children faced neglect by parents struggling to make ends meet. Some 68 percent had never attended school.
“An indication of the depth of the prejudice faced by the Dom is a desire to leave behind their ethnic identity,” said Hope. Demonstrative of this is the fact the Domari language is rapidly losing ground to Arabic, she told IRIN.
“Half of the adults but only a quarter of the children we interviewed spoke Domari,” she added. “Language is a marker of their ethnic identity and it seems parents are trying to suppress it to protect their children from the discrimination they experienced.”
TDH and Insan Association were unable to estimate the size of the Dom community in Lebanon, but their research suggests there are 3,112 living in the Lebanese cities of Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. “Many more Dom communities exist within Lebanon, particularly in Tripoli and the Bekaa,” Hope said.
Unlike refugees or the Bedouin, with whom they are often confused, the Dom were granted naturalization in 1994. But despite enjoying citizenship rights, the Dom community faces even greater marginalization than Palestinian refugees and is ignored by almost all NGOs, the report said.
The children, in particular, are vulnerable to violence, chronic malnutrition, child marriage, dangerous working conditions and exploitation. Many community members are also reluctant to access public services like health care or education because of their perceived secondary status.
Until recently the Dom of Lebanon were a nomadic people. Since naturalization, however, most have settled down and started enrolling their children in school, Hope said.
“Ten years ago, our family used to be afraid of enrolling children in school,” said one Dom man living in the Bekaa’s Bar Elias area. “We were afraid we would be arrested or be refused because people think we are afraid of science. Now we are trying to enrol our children in school.”