World Humanitarian Day: Women serving at the front line - By Philippe Lazzarini (UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon)

Today, on World Humanitarian Day, we pay tribute to the millions of women in crises worldwide. The 2019 theme, #WomenHumanitarians, celebrates female aid workers who persist every day to help people in need; and the women affected by conflict, displacement, poverty and discrimination who are often the first to respond to crisis in their own communities - from Arsal to Afghanistan. Serving on the front lines of crisis, women run schools and clinics, broker access, advocate for more effective responses and play a critical role in conflict resolution and peace building.

This year’s theme is also timely for Lebanon, where women still suffer from widespread gender discrimination as well as political and socio-economic marginalization. Many women across Lebanon experience economic insecurity, social isolation and exploitation as a result of gender inequality. Domestic violence is also sadly widespread, with more than 30 percent of married Lebanese women reporting that they have experienced at least one form of intimate partner violence.

The stark reality is that Lebanon’s legal frameworks continue to hinder women’s equal rights, from access to property and inheritance to simple issues such as access to legal documents and passing their nationality to their own children. As a reflection of this, Lebanon ranked 140th out of 149 in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap report.

Progress is however being made, in great part thanks to the tireless efforts of Lebanese activists and advocates. Though modest, Lebanon’s Cabinet now has the highest number of women in its history, including the first female interior minister in the Arab world. The repeal of Article 522 of the penal code in 2017 - under which a rapist could be exempt from punishment if he married his victim - is a major step in the right direction, hopefully leading the way to amending other laws governing issues of gender-based violence - including the important but incomplete 2014 law on domestic violence.

I am also encouraged by Parliament’s commitment to take up a comprehensive package of women’s rights-related laws in March 2020 - including proposals to ban child marriage and amend Law 293 on domestic violence, among other important areas. In addition, once the Cabinet has endorsed Lebanon’s National Action Plan on Resolution 1325, there will be an invaluable road map for realizing issues of women’s rights, peace and security in the country.

While the importance of such legislative and political reforms should not be underestimated, additional critical work is needed to address continued violence against women and to promote women’s engagement in the economy and in political life - areas in which progress is stymied by a common perception that women are secondary to men.

When it comes to female refugees, reality can be even starker. Reports indicate increasing domestic violence within refugee communities, and Syrian female-headed households continue to be the most vulnerable to food insecurity. Meanwhile Syrian refugee girls are increasingly subject to child marriage, a negative coping mechanism sadly affecting nearly one in three girls.

The legislative changes that we are calling for and championing have a limited impact in addressing gender discrimination within refugee communities. To bolster equality and the protection of female refugees, we need to increase the number of women at the front line of the response. Global data shows that when women serve in front-line service delivery, communities’ trust increases, and women are better reached and more willing to bring their issues to the table.

In recognizing that women are the agents of a more effective response, we need to promote and facilitate their role at the front line of our assistance and protection programs. In Lebanon, I have met over the last few years a number of extraordinarily inspiring female community champions, across impoverished neighborhoods, refugee settlements and courts of law. They work relentlessly every day to provide aid, support survivors of violence and advocate for equality; and above all, they encourage willful optimism.

Today, as we celebrate “Women Humanitarians,” I call on all of us to reflect on the important contribution women are making to building a better, stronger and more cohesive humanitarian and social response - in their communities and beyond. We must continue to challenge ourselves and to question the in-built gender biases that we bring to policymaking and service delivery. Only once these biases are recognized and addressed, can we hope for a more equal society.

Join the UN Lebanon for the World Humanitarian Day Event on Aug. 19 at 6 p.m. at Antwork (Hamra), and for the photo exhibition at Antwork from Aug. 20-22, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. - open to the public, free admission.

Philippe Lazzarini
UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon
Follow Philippe Lazzarini on twitter: @UNLazzarini

Philippe Lazzarini photo