Where Women Stand in Lebanon – Post Explosion & In an Ongoing Pandemic

Even before the current crises originating from the explosion and the pandemic, Lebanon was not doing well in terms of women’s rights and equality. In 2020, the country ranked 145th out of a total of 153 countries in overall gender disparities and 12th out of 16 Arab countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. Lebanon ranked 136th out of 153 countries in economic participation and opportunity as well as 149th out of 153 countries in political empowerment. Lebanon consistently ranked low in female participation. 

Women struggle in the workforce due to outdated stereotypes and misogynist cultures that question women’s intellect and competency. They are the first to be fired and the last to be rehired. Women often don’t join the formal economy as a result of discrimination and instead create their own informal economy by making and selling their own items. Historically, women will do whatever it takes to care for their children. Due to Covid-19 and the explosion, and the insecurity in their aftermath, many children are out of school and at home during the day leaving women to struggle to take care of their children, the house, and their professional duties. Schools gave women a chance to leave the house and do their work and now women must stay home either to help the children with online school or stay with them if their school was canceled.

In Lebanese political structures, women are severely under-represented and those that are in the system have become increasingly frustrated with the rampant corruption and sectarian power plays that have debilitated Lebanon for decades. The last government had 30% female representation with 6 women as ministers, yet they were unaware of what women needed. Recently, they refused to include sanitary pads as a subsidized product on a list of imports. What may seem like a small example is actually an indicator of a perpetuation and increase of what people call “period poverty,” a small pillar of a wide foundation built to keep women in insecurity.

As the Covid-19 pandemic progressed, many women found themselves caring for the sick at home or in the hospitals, making them more exposed to the virus. The nursing sector in Lebanon consists of 79.52% female from the Order of Nurses. These nurses face trauma from the blast. As the economy has worsened, nurses are paid less and expected to work longer hours. This gendered economic immobility prevents some young girls from gaining access to mental health resources as they have no access to an income. Between mid-March and June of 2020, over 300 calls were made to the National Emotional Support and Suicide Prevention Helpline, 50% of which were women and 16% of whom were actively contemplating suicide. Many women report feeling socially isolated and are experiencing major stress in regards to trauma, loss, family discord, relationship problems, and financial difficulties. 

During times of crisis, girls are the first to be pulled out of school and the last to return. Many girls are expected to do additional labor at home and in poorer households, girls are denied education altogether. With Covid-19 and school being canceled, children have lost a year of education and social interaction. We don’t know how the long-term effects of social isolation will impact young people, but we can anticipate that the effects will have long term ramifications and will require explicit attention. 

Violence against women increases during times of insecurity, and the pandemic is no exception. The numbers of calls received by the NGO hotlines in March 2020 was double that recorded in the same period of 2019. KAFA, which means ‘Enough’ in Arabic, reports that the number of calls that received has increased by 4.5 times between March and June of 2020 from 299 to 1371 calls. New calls increased three-fold from 75 to 236 between that time period. ABAAD, meaning dimensions in Arabic, is a Resource Centre for Gender Equality that found that domestic violence cases were up 20% since March 2020. The pandemic resulted in exacerbating pre-existing cases of intimate partner violence as well as creating new cases. For women and girls, being quarantined safely is a luxury.

LGBTQ populations, female migrant domestic workers, refugees, and other groups were already vulnerable before the pandemic. When Lebanon got rid of the US Dollar, they prevented female migrant domestic workers from sending money to their families. They also cannot leave the house as their employer’s fear that they might get Covid and, with their employers at home, they are expected to work all day. Many domestic workers are abused sexually, physically, physiologically, and economically although it has also increased drastically due to the stress from the deteriorating economic climate and health risks. Due to the financial crisis, many employers have not paid their domestic workers or have left them on the streets outside the embassy as the employers refuse to pay their repatriation fees. The Embrace and the Internal Security Forces noted that during the first six months of 2020, 15% of suicides were committed by female foreign domestic workers as compared to 17% in all of 2019.

Discrimination against refugees has been rising as the narrative of refugees “taking Lebanese jobs” has been on the rise. Many refugees do not have a choice but to keep working in order to support their families. The UNHCR was able to provide emergency cash support to nearly 200,000 additional refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey who previously did not receive financial aid yet this is still not enough to keep the increasing refugee families from living well below the poverty line. ILO surveys found that the workforce has faced major layoffs with nearly 60% of respondents reporting that they had been permanently or temporarily laid-off; the majority of respondents were refugees. They are also blamed for spreading the virus as they were unable to stay home and unable to self-isolate for a majority of the pandemic. LGBTQ populations are forced to live in situations where their identities are negated or denied without the support of their communities and other outlets.

When the crises are over, the risks will not end for women. Life will be different in Lebanon going forward as the economy, politics, health, and infrastructure will all have been impacted. We need to be productive in mitigating risks for women and in making sure they are an active part of the recovery in leadership and decision-making roles. Our job is to ensure that women’s rights organizations and feminist activist have the tools and resources they need to advocate and act on behalf of women and girls. If women are once again left out of leadership roles in the response to the pandemic, the patriarchal consolidation of power in these areas will have devastating effects on women’s rights, equality, and autonomy. Women in Lebanon are an under-utilized asset. They are an economic force, and they are the country’s social safety net. Women are the ones who know who is in need, what they need, and how to get it to them. Centering women in the response will enable the country to recover better and to better withstand future shock. A Lebanon with women in the lead is better for everyone.

Support & Resources for Women in Lebanon

Many have asked us to refer them to women-focused and women-led initiatives in Lebanon for support. Here’s our list – we’re adding to it every day!

First – some context. Lebanon wasn’t doing very well before the explosion. Since October 2019, the country has undergone massive upheaval – starting with public protests and government restructure, then an economic crisis followed by COVID-19. This has proven to be a toxic combination for the country. The explosion on 4 August has now turned an already serious situation into a humanitarian disaster.

Before the blast, the Lebanese Lira had lost approximately 80% of its value. On the black market, rates of exchange have risen to 8,000 LL for 1 USD – before COVID and the financial crisis, rates were locked at 1,500 LL = 1 USD. Unemployment rates before the explosion reached nearly 32% for Lebanese, and are more for non-Lebanese migrant and refugee workers. COVID-19 cases are on the rise, resulting in a two-week enforced lockdown period that began shortly before the blast.  For approximately 9 necessary commodities, prices have jumped a minimum of 20% (for some, it’s almost 60%).

Given this dire situation, The Arab Institute for Women has put together a list of women/LGBT/queer/refugee/migrant-led and -focused initiatives, researchers, and journalists in Beirut for you to follow, fund, and support. 

Our advocacy is focused on working with partners to fill gaps in humanitarian aid. Priorities for women include (but are not limited to): 

  • Economic support packages for women-headed households (e.g. temporary foodstuffs, towels, soap, toilet paper)
  • Supplies for mothers, especially new mothers: baby formula, baby food, diapers, baby wipes, baby shampoo, and baby clothes
  • Hygiene kits and menstrual products

Online Resources

Journalists

Researchers

  • Aya Majzoub (@Aya_Majzoub) – Lebanon and Bahrain Researcher HRW
  • Maha Yahya Director of Carnegie Middle East (@mahamyahya)
  • Cilina Nasser (Human Rights researcher – @CilinaNasser)
  • Kim Ghattas (@KimGhattas) – non-resident Fellow at Carnegie Endowment
  • Abir Ghattas (AbirGhattas) – Human Rights Watch
  • Tala Harb (@TalaHarb_) – RCCA at Amnesty International
  • Léa Yammine (@lea_yam) – Deputy Director Lebanon Support
  • Marie-Noëlle AbiYaghi (@mnabiyaghi) – Director of Lebanon Support
  • Mariam Younes (@mayouns1) – Regional Director Rosa-Luxembourg-Stiftung Beirut Office, Research Fellow Lebanon Support

Activists

Feminist Organizations

Funding Campaigns

Lebanon: From Tears to Rage

By Lina AbiRafeh

Has it already been four days? I haven’t processed this yet, haven’t accepted the reality of our disaster, haven’t digested this foul meal we’ve been force-fed by our so-called leadership. It all makes me sick.

Leadership is not about power, position, or politics. It is about modeling the kind of behavior that inspires others, it is about galvanizing the collective toward a common goal. It is about doing the Right Thing.

When I see pictures of people cleaning their own streets I think our politicians do not deserve us. They are not leaders. They are cowards.

Please show me a politician with a broom – perhaps I’ve missed those pictures?!

For five minutes I forget what has happened. And then I relieve the nightmare. Refresh my Twitter feed for more more more. But – I am not there. I could have been there. Should have been there. Should be there. Should go there. I am an emergency person after all. And this is our very own emergency.

In 2002, when I told my parents that I was moving to Afghanistan, my mother said: Why do you want to work in someone else’s war zone when you have your own war zones?!

It took me 13 years to move to one of my warzones (the other is Palestine – and that’s a whole other tragedy). I spent four years in Beirut. Did I do anything useful? Am I doing anything useful now?

The curse of the diaspora is pain plus paralysis. We hurt. But we’re impotent. Money is all we can do. We do it – but then what? It’s never enough

Because this was senseless. Stupid. Preventable. The government murdered its own people. And we can’t blame anyone else this time.

Today Lebanon is shattered glass, bloody streets, and broken hearts. And righteous rage.

The Sadalsuud Foundation of Beirut; Girl’s Education, Bread, Women’s Empowerment, Soup, & Community Healing

A school for girls. A bakery employing and empowering women. A soup kitchen in the wake of the Beirut explosion. 

Brant Stewart is the founder of the Sadalsuud Foundation, a mission that has taken on new life in each of its iterations. In 2017, the organization began as a girls school in Tripoli for literacy classes. Community outreach efforts took two months before there were enough girls to fill a classroom. A Syrian woman from Homs personally spent those two months reaching out to her neighbors in her own community in Tripoli, going from business to mosque to home in search of recruits. They faced many challenges not only in their efforts to recruit girls to the school, but in retention. Religious conservatism, a lack of safety in leaving the home, a culture of fear, child marriage, needing young girls to work to support their families, and the reliance on young girls to babysit younger siblings all contributed to the struggles the foundation faced. 

Despite these challenges, over 200 young girls were educated over the course of the two years these programs were running. Arabic literacy, improv theater, gender-based violence prevention, and life skills were at the root of educational programming. 

As with many critical community endeavors, funding remained (and continues to remain) fickle. As an innovative solution to this barrier, Brant found an answer in his own childhood, when he used to bake with his mother and grandmother. He would open a bakery and use the profits to continue funding the school in Tripoli. Now, he owns his own bakery in Beirut where he employs women. The hope for the Sadalsuud Foundation is to continue to provide women with opportunities for economic empowerment and individual freedom in a place where they feel at home, a place where they can take pride and ownership of their space and work. 

The Sadalsuud Foundation will take on yet another form, as a soup kitchen for the community, as the people of Beirut grieve, fight, heal, protest, and rebuild.  

We ask that you read the recent post explosion update from Brant and consider donating. To hear from the two women who work at the bakery and to read more, visit their gofundme page.

From Brant Stewart:

“The bakery itself is located just over half a kilometer from the blast site. The neighborhood, once a peaceful, hip area to go out and have coffee, eat at a restaurant or grab drinks, is now full of bombed-out apartments and businesses, debris, and glass. Our bakery too was hit by the explosion. Our steel and glass facade was cratered by the impact of the blast, showering the entire bakery with glass. We have also had structural damage to the building, as well as to the surrounding buildings, and we have some pretty serious cracks in our wood oven.  Each day we are awaiting information on whether the building next door might collapse, and waiting to have people come into our own space to assess whether it is completely safe to use.

In the meantime, we have made it our mission to move forward in getting the bakery repaired then turn the bakery into a soup kitchen to support our neighbors and community in Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael, Geitawi and Karatina – the neighborhoods most seriously damaged by the blast. 

We have decided the best thing we can do as a social enterprise is to now get back up and running as quickly as possible in order to help feed and support a city that is damaged beyond comprehension. With the money you donate today, we plan to repair our little bakery, replace our damaged equipment, items, and furniture, and then use the remaining money to fund the soup kitchen. This money will be used to purchase ingredients, pay staff, and pay for any other things we need to get food into the bellies of the most vulnerable people from the surrounding neighborhoods. If we get to a time when we assess a soup kitchen is no longer effective in helping people, we will post updates to inform you and then pass along the remaining funds to one of the many small, local initiatives that are providing medical, housing, or mental health support to affected persons. 

We ask you to follow along on Instagram for more regular updates, including stories, live videos, photos and posts (@maviabakery). Instead of donating to this campaign (which is slow and a bit cumbersome in payout), you can also donate more directly to us via PayPal at sadalsuudfoundation@gmail.com, or through Venmo at sadalsuud-foundation. Since we are a registered 501(c)(3) in the US, your donations will be tax exempt.”

Dear World, I am Lebanon

By Natalie Haboush Khoury

Dear World: 

I am Lebanon. I am writing to portray the truth. This is not a cry for help…..I have tried that too many times and it seems that with each request, I am devastated and let down even more. I don’t consider myself to have any true haters, only envious followers. I was once told that with success and popularity comes great heartbreak and betrayal. Whoever told me that was a wise, wise person. I was never considered a third world, uncivilized country. My children are and have always been the most successful, the most educated and the most intellectual of humankind. They succeed in whatever discipline they pursue. They make a name for themselves wherever they go. Though I had created the perfect environment for them, the satisfaction was short lived. 

Being the selfless country that I am, I taught my children to  welcome all individuals who didn’t have a home; refugees who were forced out of their country. I taught my children to be social and friendly. Those same individuals that we welcomed with open arms, ripped us to shreds. Add to that the leaders of the world who befriended me early on, only to discover that my friendship was to serve their own self interests. Yes, this is the harsh reality of life, but being the naive Lebanon that I am, I was oblivious to this fact and truly believed that the purpose of friendships were to empower one another and share times of success and grief together. Very quickly did I realize that my own children would abandon me and my children’s children would betray me…a spiraling effect, leading me to where I am today. 

Broken. Alone. Devastated. Starving. Lifeless. 

Most have left me. All have betrayed me. 

I am unable to provide food, shelter, love, culture, life. They have turned me into a hopeless failure. They have clipped my wings. I tried for so long to rebuild and rebuild and rebuild….brush my shoulders off and stand back up, only to be knocked down even harder each time. They have now left me completely paralyzed. 

Do you want to know the worst part? It is my own children that did this to me. Despite my attempts to teach them to remain true to themselves. Despite my attempts to raise them as leaders, leaders who believe in themselves and do unto others as they would have done unto them. Despite my attempts to carve the true values of Lebanon within their hearts. Despite these attempts and many more, they gave in. They gave in to greed. They gave in to evil. They gave in to disgrace. They gave in to dishonor. 

My children allowed the selflessness that Lebanese were known for to be replaced with the world’s selfishness. My children allowed Lebanese intellectualism to be replaced with egoism. My children allowed Lebanese culture to be replaced with the haters’ barbarism. My children sold me. And, for what? What did they receive in return? They received poverty, a lack of infrastructure, an economic collapse, a loss of morale, the devastation of friendships, the lack of a future for their children, the loss of Lebanese life. So true it is that one does not realize what he has until it’s gone. I now hear my children screaming. I hear the voices of regret. I see them trying to make their way back to me. And, of course, being the Lebanon that I am, I will take them back with open arms. I will embrace them with love and compassion. But, boy do we have a long road ahead of us. 

This time is different from all the other times. This time I cannot do it alone. This time I need ALL of my children, regardless of religion, race and economic status. I need them all to come together; to remember who we as Lebanese are: to remember what made Lebanon in the first place. I need them to remember why the world envied (and continues to envy) this country and its people. But, in doing so, I need them to forgive, but not forget. Because we as Lebanese forgive, but we also tend to forget too easily. We as Lebanese fight. We as Lebanese accept. We as Lebanese endure. We have a lot of enduring to do. We will need to survive starvation. We will need to grieve the loss of our loved ones. We will need to face our fears of being alone, of being poor, of being powerless. We can survive and we can overcome. We will survive and we will overcome and once this is all a part of our history, we truly will show the world that, yes, we are the greatest. But, in true Lebanese form, we will welcome all with open arms. The difference this time around however, will be that we will welcome our guests as guests and provide them with the best Lebanese experience, but that is exactly what they will be—guests. We are no longer accepting anyone into our family. Our family is just the right size and if we come together, we are all we need. 

All my love, 

Beirut