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How will Lebanon’s political turmoil impact women?

On Saturday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri surprised the country by resigning in a speech delivered from Saudi Arabia. We can go on all day about how men in suits make decisions that affect the lives of many – but my concern here is how this political mess will affect women.

It’s clear that this will likely create political paralysis in a country that is often frozen for years.

Unfortunate, given the recent forming of a coalition government, albeit a feeble one. And an upcoming election set for May 2018.

It looks like we might be back to zero – again.

Meanwhile, even discussions of the situation itself have led to increased harassment of women. Earlier this week, Minister of Refugees Mouin al-Mehrebi, a member of Hariri’s Future Movement made lewd comments to Linda Meshleb, a talk show host on NBN. Meshleb asked him whether Hariri was being detained at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, along with several Saudi princes recently arrested. He replied “I invite you to this hotel and I can invite another man with us if you want.” When she tried to clarify his reply, he added “The Prime Minister and others invite you to come to the Ritz.”

This is a minister that represents refugees – including refugee women and girls.

So – what does this political turmoil mean for women?!

Bluntly, it means that, once again, issues facing women are on hold because there are “more important” things to deal with, an excuse that has been repeatedly used to shut us up following demands for change in time of crisis.

It means that the security situation will worsen, in a context where relative stability still doesn’t provide women with security or access to justice. And since Lebanon still doesn’t have an action plan for women, peace and security, women and girls will remain unprotected if political paralysis turns into violent conflict.

It means that the parliamentary elections will be delayed, and this further stagnates the political involvement of women, who have had to deal with the refusal to impose a quota. The elections would have been an opportunity for women’s political participation.

It means that economic opportunities will be limited, disproportionately affecting women. And vulnerable women will have to resort to riskier means in order to survive.

It means that the refugee problem will continue to grow, which will affect health care and livelihoods, which, once again, will disproportionately affect women. The instability will also affect government response and international response to the crisis. Political parties will politicize the presence of refugees to further their own goals.

It means that the laws, strategies, and amendments that civil society and activists have been working on tirelessly to improve the lives of women in Lebanon are now postponed, if not canceled completely.

It means that, although the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence is nearing, activists’ voices will be silenced and the campaign will not be as effective as it should be, as that message will be lost between political posturing and bickering.

But – it could also mean that we have an opportunity to rethink our Ministry for Women and perhaps replace it with genuine integration of women, women’s issues, and gender issues across every ministry at every level. Because, after all, aren’t women critical to every aspect of society – and therefore to every existing ministry? Maybe we can focus more strongly on women in the Ministry of Health – to ensure safe and complete access to sexual and reproductive health and rights? Maybe the Ministry of Education can pay special attention to education for girls in rural areas. And maybe the Minister of Refugees can stop harassing women on live TV and develop programs that address the needs of women refugees. And so on and on.

Why am I thinking about women’s rights at a time like this, I hear some of you say? Why can’t we just talk about peeeeeeople – all of them? Why are women important now?!

Well – friends, we have to examine this through a gender lens. That means we need to understand what this situation will mean for women’s and men’s lives (and for certain types of women and men – we’re not just female and male monoliths, after all). And how this situation will amplify existing socio-economic and political inequalities for women. And what other negative externalities may arise. And – what we’re going to do about it.

Are you not worried about the situation deteriorating for women? Well, let’s look at indicators that provide an early warning to possible conflict – stuff like justice, human rights, political participation, socio-cultural issues like ethnic tension, internal security (and people’s perceptions of that security), economic opportunities, refugees, geopolitical challenges, military issues (and the presence of small arms among civilians), environmental concerns, governance, corruption – should I go on?

How do we think Lebanon measures up based on all of the above? That’s right, not so well.

Now think about how these affect women – or how women fare in these areas. Violations of women’s rights and inequalities are a core part of an early warning system – and indicators of the likelihood of conflict- violent, political, or otherwise. Women’s rights are a critical ingredient in conflict prevention and resolution, not an afterthought.

So – a good idea is to start taking women’s rights more seriously more quickly so we can keep things from getting worse – not just for women, but for everyone.

[Oh and – ideas, inspiration, and righteous indignation for this rant provided by fellow activists and agitators Manar Zaiter and Raja Farah.]

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