Lessons from Lebanon in preventing violence against women and girls

Women’s organizations in Lebanon are a force to be reckoned with—even in the frontier town of Arsaal, which occupies a high plateau in the northeast of the country and is often the site of spillover battles from the Syrian War. It was there that a group of dedicated and organized women from the community greeted me when I arrived in the fall of 2012. I had come to learn about available services for survivors of gender-based violence (GBV), and help put in place the additional programming and advocacy needed. The group of women ran a daycare center and offered to dedicate part of that space, during set times, to women’s programming—when survivors of violence could confidentially access support without drawing the suspicion or attention of others.

In the international jargon, interpersonal violence may be referred to by the acronyms “VAC” for violence against children, and “VAW” for violence against women. The fact that “VAC” and “VAW” overlap should not be surprising. Violence is too often a part of women’s lives, often witnessed by their children, and the experience of violence often directly affecting children. Adolescent girls, in many ways treated as women while still developing and forging relationships with the world around them, can face heightened vulnerabilities. Globally, slightly more than 1 in 10 adolescent girls aged 15-19 years (around 120 million) have experienced forced sexual acts, including rape.

© UNICEF/UNI180452/ALESSIO ROMENZIA 7 year old girl in a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley saw her father killed and her family fled to the town or Arsaal in Lebanon. Amira, 7 years: “We left my hometown, Homs in Syria under difficult circumstances. My father was shot. I was terribly shocked. My body shivered, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t eat.”

Another intersection occurs by place: the home, which should be a safe haven, but is often the site of abuse. A new report by UNICEF, A Familiar Face: Violence in the lives of children and adolescents notes that 1 in 4 children under the age of 5 – representing some 176 million children globally—live with a mother who is a victim of intimate partner violence, also known as ‘domestic’ violence.  In emergencies, this violence in the home may be exacerbated at the same time as existing systems for support may fall apart or be displaced. As one woman who had fled violence in Aleppo, and was living in a tented settlement, told me: “There is pressure all the time, we’re tired all the time. There are no separate rooms, people become angry from the smallest thing. I hear families screaming – husbands and wives.”

Emergencies exacerbate daily stressors and introduce new challenges. At the same time, they may present surprising opportunities for positive change. The Syrian War, and its effects on Lebanon, offer key lessons for those working to address violence against women and violence against children across humanitarian and development settings.

Emergencies exacerbate daily stressors and introduce new challenges. At the same time, they may present surprising opportunities for positive change.

Each of the four lessons drawn out below also showcase how applied research—whether nationally-driven or drawn from multi-country or global studies—is critical to informing limited prevention and response resources.

Lesson 1:  Partner with women’s organizations at the frontlines 

Lebanese women’s organizations have long been providing services to survivors of violence. Some organizations were established or strengthened to meet the needs arising out of the country’s fourteen-year civil war. Two leading organizations, KAFA (Enough) Violence & Exploitation and ABAAD Resource Center for Gender Equality, quickly adapted to respond to the needs of Syrian refugees following their displacement in 2012. They partnered with government actors and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and UN agencies who arrived in Lebanon to respond, or expanded their existing programs.

In order to better understand public awareness of family violence, and factors that influence help-seeking behavior, KAFA requested research that was carried out by Ipsos Marketing in 2016. The study estimates that almost half the population personally know someone affected by domestic violence, and assesses their knowledge of and trust in organizations and laws meant to support them.

Such demand-driven research is easily applied to improving existing services and advocacy efforts, as well as informing their adaptation for emergency-affected populations. Undertaking research in collaboration with civil society, academic, and/or government stakeholders—with linkages to relevant networks—not only improves accountability to the current and future populations it is meant to benefit, but also minimizes ‘over-research’. This phenomenon is already documented within the Lebanese context in respect to Palestinian refugees (see this recent editorial in Nature, originally published five years ago).

Lesson 2: Strengthen formal and informal support 

In Lebanon, the arrival of a large number of Syrian refugees, who had faced conflict-related violence served to shine a spotlight on the ways in which formal prevention and response mechanisms to address the specialized needs of survivors were lacking.

Humanitarian actors trained in GBV and ‘child protection’ were quick to partner with government and civil society organizations, training cadres of social workers, health professionals, law enforcement and justice actors in key competencies necessary for responding to cases of abuse and exploitation. Yet how would this be institutionalized, once the inevitable reduction in funding and attention occurs? How can capacity built within the social service workforce and partners be sustained?

This is where lesson #1 enters in again: ABAAD now offers a free, online learning course on GBV Case Management in Emergency Settings, based on a curriculum developed by Dr. Lina Abirafeh and other members of a national technical taskforce that came together in the early days of the response to promote a coordinated, nationally-led approach. Lebanese American University has since developed a certificate program in Gender in Development and Humanitarian Assistance, further strengthening Lebanon’s cadre of policymakers and practitioners, researchers and academics, activists and advocates with continued education and credentialing.

But what about informal support networks, made up of the people closest to victims of violence whom they often turn to first –friends, family members, religious leaders, and trusted community members?  And why is this important?

© UNICEF/UN043142/Sebastian RichSyrian refugee women meeting at an informal settlement in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon say their daughters have been married early mostly to address grinding poverty after hundreds of families have fled here from the Syrian war. The work of the Lebanese KAFA NGO has helped raised awareness among the women, men and the youth of the damaging impact of early marriage.

The KAFA/Ipsos study cited above found that around 1/3 of those surveyed in Lebanon would advise those affected by violence to turn to family rather than file a formal complaint. This is not unique: a review of seven countries in which national surveys on violence against children (“VACS”) had been undertaken found that the proportion of victims accessing formal services was generally 10% or less. A World Health Organization study on domestic violence against women in 10 countries found that, “Where women do seek help, they primarily turn to informal sources of support, particularly family and friends, rather than to formal sources.”

Stigma, mistrust, and a dearth of appropriate and accessible services are some of the reasons why victims of violence may never contact the formal mechanisms meant to serve them. Efforts to better link informal and formal support systems are important.

Lesson 3: Connect the dots—in policy and in practice

In 2012, a survivor of domestic violence in Lebanon had few legal remedies available: affairs of the household are governed by personal status laws according to an individual’s religious affiliation. This not only meant that women could not seek protection from law enforcement. It also meant that they could not safely leave a violent marriage without risk of losing their children.

Children may also be directly assaulted and/or witness domestic abuse. Research has shown that children who experience or witness violence at a higher risk of experience and perpetration in adulthood, and the effects are gendered. Girls are more likely to accept violence in adult relationships as normal, and boys are likely to repeat their father’s violent behavior.

© UNICEF/UN043141/Sebatian RichSyrian refugee women meeting at an informal settlement in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon where they discuss the damaging impact of early marriage and violence. Many feel their daughters are more protected from violence and sexual abuse if they are married. The work of the Lebanese KAFA NGO has helped raised awareness among the women, men and the youth of the damaging impact of early marriage, including girls dropping out of school and having children before their body is able to safely go through motherhood.

Women’s organizations in Lebanon knew this intimately. Over the last five years, some of their advocacy efforts have started to bear fruit.

In 2014, the Lebanese parliament passed Law 293, with the purpose of protecting women and other family members from domestic violence and physical abuse. Important gaps remain, yet the law represents a foundation upon which Lebanese civil society can build. Importantly, it raises questions about how child witnesses of domestic violence and child survivors of domestic violence—i.e. child brides—are protected in the eyes of the Lebanese judicial system.

Connecting the dots includes ensuring that those most directly affected by violence, and the people in their lives to whom they may turn to for support, have access to accurate, up-to-date, easily understandable information.

Lesson 4:  Communicate clearly, constantly, and creatively 

Lebanese communication campaigns go far beyond brochures and websites: activists often take to the streets with billboards, theater, and debate. Their campaigns are designed to address the underlying social and gender norms that silence and shame those affected—and that promote harmful behaviors which are codified with Lebanese law.

Major campaigns have centered around abolishing parts of the Lebanese penal code that allow men who perpetrate rape to marry their (underage) victims and escape penalties by doing so, and raising the minimum age for marriage. While rates of child marriage are relatively low in Lebanon (with approximately 6% of girls married by age 18), the phenomenon is well-documented and reportedly rising among Syrian refugees living there: a recent UNFPA study found that 24% of the 15 to 17-year-old girls they spoke with were married, and acknowledges that some estimates “show child marriage rates to be four times higher among Syrian refugees today than among Syrians before the crisis.”

Increased attention to child marriage as a negative coping mechanism among displaced populations arguably supports organizations like KAFA, ABAAD, and the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering (RDFL), who have been working for years to address the issue within Lebanese laws. Progress is slow, but recent developments are promising.

Engaging in programming, advocacy, and research driven by women’s and children’s rights organizations has served to advance change in Lebanon at a critical time in the country’s history, hosting the highest per capita refugee population in the world –  with over 1.5 million Syrian refugees alone. Serving this large influx of people in need is possible, in part, because of the layering of locally- and nationally-driven responses to problems of violence that are present in times of ‘peace’ and now exacerbated by war and displacement.

Recognition of the intersections between violence affecting women and children is growing, around the world, in development and humanitarian settings UNICEF is partnering with Columbia University to investigate drivers of household violence in emergencies and identify promising interventions.

Returning to Arsaal, perhaps the final lesson is one in commitment and resourcefulness: a kindergarten converted—during the hours not in use—into a center for survivors of domestic violence is not ideal. Yet it met a very real need, in a setting with few resources, for women and children who face heightened levels of violence and abuse due to the power differentials inherent in their age and gender.

Alina Potts is a research and evaluation specialist with UNICEF Innocenti. Explore the UNICEF Innocenti research catalogue for new publications. Follow UNICEF Innocenti on Twitter and sign up for e-newsletters on any page of the UNICEF Innocenti website.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with “required.”