Q and A interview with Rachel Dore-Weeks the Representative of UN Women in Lebanon extracted from opening panel of Women on the Front Lines 2022 conducted by Mirella Abou Khalil Journalist and reporter at MTV Lebanon.Q and A interview with Rachel Dore-Weeks the Representative of UN Women in Lebanon extracted from opening panel of Women on the Front Lines 2022 conducted by Mirella Abou Khalil Journalist and reporter at MTV Lebanon.
M: We will be discussing everything related to women specifically women in Lebanon, we will be mainly talking about the crisis, tell us more about the situation of women in Lebanon especially in the crisis and now, how all the projects and all the help performed and if work is still need to be done specifically in NGOs related to women.
R: Thank you for having me and huge thanks to the May Chidiac Foundation and Dr May herself always being a champion of women’s rights here in Lebanon. I mean Lebanon is of course a unique and interesting case we hear that a lot, but on human rights it’s also the case, Lebanon made huge progress on issues of health, education, up to the crisis women are almost at parody, Lebanon was excelling within the region on statistics around general equality for health and education, but at the same time we saw this dramatic drop off in terms of women engagement in the economy, women’s engagement in politics, and even engagement of women in elements of the private sector where we see sort of an intersection between the economy and politics which was a juxtaposition between how we saw Lebanon as a sort of “bastion” of freedom and often that was the image we saw in Beirut in other urban capitals. But the reality of what was happening is that as a result of all kinds of discriminatory legislation in Lebanon whether that’s a fifteen personal status laws , legislation around citizenship or even discriminatory legislation within the social security law, labor law and other laws that was prohibiting women from entering specific sectors, in addition to gender norms that saw women as relegated to their home as belonging to the private sector and men belonging withing politics and within the public sector.
M: especially the pandemic itself, all institutes fired women saying that men should be working in order to get money for the family and the women should go back to their home and family. But here how can we work on this point or did you work on this point itself, trying to engage more the women in the work field?
R: Exactly as you say about the pandemic I mean it was interesting and exciting during 2019 protest when people took to the street we saw one of the rallying was around women’s rights and gender equality, I guess similar to what we are seeing around women’s rights became sort of this thing that everyone was asking for in addition to obviously anti-corruption, transparency in the judiciary but it wasn’t only women who were seeing the importance of gender equality in all of the demands around those protests in 2019, and so we saw this societal way of saying we need change and then as you say the crisis hit while the economic crisis and the pandemic and the message both publicly but also in terms of pressure the women felt as there is work to do at home, you can no longer afford domestic workers, plus kids are staying home because they are not in school, hospitals are overwhelmed we have sick people older people who are staying at home who might have had benefited from care, women are pushed back into the home.
M: The violence increased in this period of time especially during the pandemic
R: exactly and so women those that did have decent jobs were often pushed out of those jobs or encouraged to return home or take that unpaid work then we did see some women entering the workforce in larger numbers but often in underpaid overexploited work because of the desperation some families had, but those are jobs that none of us would want to have, these jobs were taken out of desperation and are very underpaid. Some of the things that we’ve been doing across a range of the spectrum there are bolts working through our own work but also in partnership with other UN agencies, the government, NGOs, and the private sector to actually create jobs within the Lebanese economy but also the international economy were people can still work from Lebanon with international companies all whilst living here. In the second part has been really around emphasizing why does it matter to get women in the economy and tagging that to the discussions around the IMF deal and structural macroeconomic reforms for more women to enter the economy there are things that need to happen, the labor law needs to be amended, we need social protection that supports maternity and paternity, there are all kinds of measures that need to be put in place and so we can work as we can with partners in the private sector but we really need the government and the parliament stepping in and enabling an environment for women to enter and remain within the economy
M: Its not a priority for the politicians in Lebanon so how hard was it in order to implement these ideas and find vacancies for women as you said?
R: We’ve had some political activists who this is a priority for and they have been allies trying to push this agenda through the parliament and through other policy spaces. Working in a context where we see little happening within the parliament but it’s true as the crisis depends we keep being told now is not the right time to talk about women’s rights, we’ll talk about that later and what we’ve been trying to say is if Lebanon is going to recover you have this 50% of the population that’s highly educated perhaps unlike other countries. Lebanon can recover without that 50% coming into the economy, working, engaging with the productive sectors, paying taxes, and being part of the innovations and solutions to get Lebanon on the road to recovery and then in terms of creating jobs it’s very difficult for everybody right now, it’s difficult for the UN, it’s difficult for the private sector and so we’ve been trying to find new areas where there is both a demand and a potential for sustainability so one of the things we’ve been doing is trying to find things that are in need and for us sanitary pads has been something that we’ve been working on
M: Yes we’ve been facing a period poverty as well.
R: Exactly, so how do we address the issue of period poverty and try to support Lebanon’s productive sectors and get people back to work. So we’ve supported the creation of small female led social enterprises we call them production units in Tripoli the Beqaa Mount Lebanon and soon to be in Saida. Those production units are producing Lebanese made sanitary pads that are approved by Lebnor, that have passed all of the tests in terms of health and other kinds of specs and they’ll be selling them a box for 11,000 on the market so affordable price, women are being employed to make these production units, so far, we have 480 women making them in the production units.
They are already in sale in Tripoli and we can share examples with you I actually should have brought examples with me, I often turn into those feminists that walk around with a box of sanitary pads to show people, and then each production now is making 30,0000 a week. For now, because the UN is helping to produce them, 80% of them are given out for free through schools, and other community centers and 20% are sold, but the hope is that as the UN steps out, these units become self-sustaining and they’ll be having to sell at least 60 to 80% of them and giving out 20% to be able to pay the people who produce them, so we are trying to find innovative areas like that where we need to invest in Lebanon’s productive sectors where we can also employ people but it’s 480 women which is good but there are a lot of other women that need to get back to work or get into work to help Lebanon recover.
M: Yes sure, when we talk about the work place we talk about the de-violence that happen or women face, we talked about this issue and especially in the pandemic itself, is there anything done on this aspect as well? Then we talked about the laws it will take time and definitely is not a priority especially in the crisis but when it comes to violation what is done in this aspect?
R: One of the major achievements that we’ve had is of course the 2020 passage of the domestic violence amendments and the sexual harassment policy that came in December of that year and that’s a really important step, although it is hard to implement all forms of legislation in Lebanon at this moment particularly with the justice sector on strike we have seen an optic in the number of allegations around sexual harassment that means people understanding the law and then beginning to use it and that’s not just in urban centers in Beirut we’ve also seen it in famous places like Tripoli but also in other places around the country. So that law has been a very important step with saying there is 0 tolerance for sexual harassment and violence in the workplace but also in other places and then the work we’re trying to do with UNDP, AUB, and others and the national commission for Lebanese women is trying to work with different private sectors to inform them what the law says and help them put structures in place.
R: Report on violence within the economy, the workplace and hold people accountable to it so that people know that within the workplace there will be 0 tolerance so we are doing that in two specific ways, one is training workforces starting with the larger companies everything from mersk to aramex to others so large workforces and then working with HR sectors to put clear protocols, hotlines, in place to address violence’s that are reported.
M: in one of the meetings with different NGOs one of the main issue or the problem that they face is the sustainability of the funds given to them so now you said we have funds for these factories in order to do the sanitary pads but we don’t know how much we can follow up on this issue, is there any vision for this issue itself and maybe we can talk what should be done in Lebanon to say we are half way there or maybe the gap will decrease easier with time.
R: I think there is a number of complex factors that are making it increasingly difficult to obtain long term sustainable funding for projects like this when there is of course the Ukraine crisis diverting people’s attention understandably to what’s happening there and I know ambassadors, donors, in Lebanon are working very hard to keep the focus on Le3banon because of their commitments to their country, I think the other part is the real feeling that Lebanon needs to step up and pay it’s share where a country that has a very regressive tax base, rates of paying tax are very low so there is this sense that the willing of the international communities but they need to see reforms about taxation to be implemented across the country and the government applying the budget it has for these key programs. In our experience as UN women, we stills see a lot of international commitments, a lot of money going into this area whether to us or NGOs or other partners, and I think partners are recognizant of this with the long term funding but we are in ana environment in Lebanon where most of the funding for Lebanon is humanitarian funding, it’s coming to support the urgent needs of people and that in nature is short term so it is this paradox where we try to find a long term solution for Lebanon with short term international financing.
M: okay so if we need to talk about what should be done now as head of the UN women you talked about every single aspect related to women, economy, health, politics, what is supposed to be done in order to help your work and in order to help women in Lebanon?
R: There are some broader things to be done not only for women but for everybody in Lebanon, social protection is a big item for both the Lebanese population and the Lebanese government, the UN and the international committee, we need to scale up in both terms of investments but also international investment in Lebanon’s social protection so everything from the national targeting program to the ISSN, to maternity leave, to all of the other elements and that would be huge for women both enabling women to remain in the economy but also in trying to level some of the gender inequalities that we see. A second one is affordable childcare, we have seen childcare become increasingly unaffordable and as that happens, women will be forced because of gender norms because a childcare is a women’s responsibility to remain in the home and take care of that , and for us childcare is really a win-win you can both build affordable childcare and pay people to look after children within public and private sector regulated companies so you are creating jobs and you’re allowing women or children to have safe spaces.
M: Is it hard to implement this in Lebanon?
R: It is hard but we need a plan, this is our moment as Lebanon is sinking, making sure that we have plans in place ensuring we understand how to budget it and the long road to starting to rebuild the economy in ways that are both sustainable and promote women’s engagement in the economy and for us the care sector is a key area for that and then there are things needed within the parliament and obviously this is a more difficult process, we believe that we need a unified personal status law, that says that women and men are equal if we want to address the gender discrimination, we need equality in terms of nationality and then these are big items that are going to take a lot of work, in the short term we need greater investment from the government and things like addressing violence against women that’s happening in increasing numbers making public spaces safer with the crisis, we’ve all seen how dark it is outside, it’s becoming increasingly unsafe.
M: But we know that the government doesn’t have money for this issue and we know that the NGOs are taking the initiatives and they are lighting the streets and working on trying to have child protection, we know that it is expensive as you said and this is what’s leading women to stay at home and quits their jobs as well. What can be done in order to have a secured environment for women so that she can work for herself and her family as well.
R: On the point of not having the money it’s true but we do have the IMF deal waiting so there are pockets of money that could be unlocked that can be moved forward to getting this done but we need the political will. In the short term until we have that we’re going to have to keep relying on the parts of the government that are able to keep functioning, the national commission for Lebanese women, NGOs, the UN, to keep trying to find very local solutions and those solutions will continue to be shelters, referral pathways, psychological support, cash support and other kinds of assistance that allow female headed households to maintain and not sink deeper into poverty during this crisis.
M: Changing the ideas or changing he perspective itself is based on awareness most of NGOs are working on the awareness sessions in order to help women know more about their rights and then they can work hand in hand to achieve it. Most of the NGOS are talking about the lack of shelters we have in Lebanon 13 shelters for women and the number is decreasing due to the crisis they have to shut down due to the highly expenses and knowing that the women they don’t pay if they go to these shelters how can we ensure safety if we don’t have these shelters? is there any plan in order to increase the number or maybe to support them economically?
R: Shelters are often seen as a something Lebanese women don’t use and it’s true if we look at the numbers of the shelters now most of the women that are in the shelters in Lebanon are either migrant domestic workers or third country nationals in need of support because they don’t have that community around them and firstly for that alone we need to keep investing in shelters because those women need our support also, for Lebanese women I think we need to give them better avenues to exit violence, we know from previous research done about in three or as much as in two, women in Lebanon have faced violence in Lebanon and currently there is so much stigma around shelters, how to destigmatize shelters how do we make it easier for all women to access shelters and as you say part of that is expanding them and making it easier to leave shelters, he exit plan is hard because of stigma within people’s communities because it is hard for women to enter the economy, so having that whole chain where there is reduced stigma, there is more community support, around having shelters, the short term exit strategy, and then women being able to be self-sufficient, creating an environment where they can be, so absolutely scaling up all of that in addition to trying to support the justice sector to get back to work, without protection orders, it really is a free fall, there is no accountability for any type of violence and certainly not violence against women which is understandable as they are and so the question is back on the institutions how do we allow the justice sector to get back to work to ensure that we can address violence against women.
M: We need the country to function in order to maintain these issues
R: and we’ll have to prioritize because as you say we are operating within a smaller fiscal space so we need to get the idea that all institutions need to function which they do in the long term but in the short term we need to say which are the priority institutions that need to get back to work for people’s safety, to address poverty, health and education and invest in those and support the government to put the budget in to those elements to get them back to work.
M: If I need to end in one question which is the role of the media in my opinion as working in the field of media, I guess there is a shift in covering topics related to women I guess there are some feminist reporters on the field so I guess the image changed somehow how do you see the media and the role of media in helping the work of UN women or different NGOs working on topics related to women
R: The role of the media is critical media is what touches the most amount of people in Lebanon whether it’s more traditional forms of media or social media and media also perpetuates ideas that women belong here or men belong here all these kinds of things which is perpetuated gender equality which is bad to women and men and so you are right that we have seen it shift and the elections are a good indicator of that shift UN women and UNDP and other have done research we saw much less violence against female candidates from journalists in this election then we did in 2018 election and this trend needs to continue we need media professionals held accountable for using positive language around women around gender norms and creating gender norms is ok for men to do house work, it’s okay for women to be in public space.
M: We should focus on their work
R: and so working together to hold the media accountable but also to be a partner to the media is a critical part of what we do in different parts of the UN.
M: One last question, we will be having the municipality elections in Lebanon is there any work done in order to maybe support women to elect first and to run for the elections?
R: We have a pretty robust program with the NGOs fifty fifty where we are trying to support female candidates across the country, we have 25 locations where fifty fifty are choosing local partners and trying to support leaders who already have a constituency and trying to link them with possible electoral lists and trying to engage with their constituency and helping them to run.
M: Thank you so much for all the information and all the work that you are doing for women and especially women in Lebanon.
Read More: Women on the Front Lines 2022