Mideast campaigners confront violence against women

In this file photo, an activist from the Lebanese NGO Abaad stands in a golden cage dressed as a bride while during a protest in front of the government building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon on March 15, 2017. (File photo by AP)
Updated 24 November 2017
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Mideast campaigners confront violence against women

LONDON: A coordinated effort to bring an end to violence against women and girls gets underway this Saturday as campaigners across the world participate in the UN’s 16 Days of Activism against gender-based abuse.
On Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, buildings and landmarks across the world will be illuminated in orange — the color of the campaign, which this year runs under the theme “Leave No One Behind: End Violence against Women and Girls.”
In the Middle East, there has been some cause to celebrate in 2017, with the long-campaigned-for repeal of rape-marriage laws in Tunisia (article 227), Jordan (article 308) and Lebanon (article 522) marking an end to penal code provisions that allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims.
The decisions, which took place within the space of a few months, “heralded new change for the region” said Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. “Now we’re seeing momentum to do away with these clauses in other Middle East countries,” she added, pointing to pressure building in both Bahrain and Palestine.
Middle Eastern countries including Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya and Syria still have versions of the rape-marriage clause.
“The 16 Days campaign allows women’s rights NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and activists around the world to galvanize and really address this incredibly egregious abuse that pervades all countries around the world,” Begum added.
Zoya Rouhana, director of Lebanon-based NGO KAFA (enough) Violence and Exploitation, described the “huge amount to be done to eliminate all forms of gender-based violence and exploitation and achieve gender equality.”
KAFA will spotlight issues surrounding sexual violence for the 16 Days campaign to raise awareness and “counteract the culture of victim blaming and shaming,” Rouhana said.
The campaign will also highlight the “existing laws that can protect women from certain types of sexual violence and call for new laws that protect women and hold perpetrators accountable,” she added.
According to the World Bank, the MENA region has the lowest number of laws protecting women from domestic violence of any region in the world, while UN Women claims that 37 percent of Arab women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, with indicators that the real percentage might be significantly higher.
In Jordan, figures from a recent population census reveal rising rates of child marriage, particularly among Syrian refugee girls pressured into early wedlock to reduce financial pressure on struggling families.
Salma Nims, secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW) explained that the issue of child marriage does not just affect children.
Speaking at the launch event for JNCW’s 16 Days campaign “Too Young to be Married,” she said “it has a negative impact on women at all stages of their life as they cannot enjoy their youth or finish their education, and the majority of them are subject to gender-based and sexual violence.”
As part of its 16 Days campaign, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has launched a global cartoon competition calling on participants to illustrate the negative effects of child marriage and domestic violence — the two most common forms of gender-based violence (GBV), according to Fatma Khan, the GBV officer at UNFPA in Amman.
Speaking to the Jordan Times, Khan said that violence against women is highly underreported in the country, making the figures available unreliable.
It is a situation reflected across the region, where a culture of victim-blaming and normalized perceptions of GBV prevents many women and girls from speaking out about assault.
“Certain forms of violence are still (seen as) justified and women themselves believe it’s still ok for men to hit women in some situations,” said Begum, who stressed the responsibility of governments to tackle GBV at all levels, including challenging the stigma surrounding reporting gender-based violence in families and communities.
“The abolition of article 522 in Lebanon won’t be effective without tackling the existing survivor-blaming norms,” said Saja Michael from ABAAD, a gender equality NGO which spearheaded the campaign to repeal the rape-marriage law in Lebanon.
She also underlined the importance of raising awareness, citing “lack of information and knowledge about women’s rights and GBV at both the institutional and community levels.”
“Law amendment or law abolishment, does not automatically result in its effective and fair implementation. For instance, although Egypt has abolished similar legislation in 1999, the practice still takes place in marginalized areas,” she added.
Last summer, ABAAD attracted international attention after hanging ripped wedding dresses along Beirut’s corniche in an eerie public demonstration against the now-repealed rape-marriage law.
For the 16 Days campaign, it plans to highlight issues surrounding incestuous rape and sexual violence, building momentum behind a push to increase the penalty, which currently ranges from two months to two years for offenders.
Changing the laws is just part of the battle according to activists in the Middle East, who emphasized the need for coordinated efforts to implement and enforce legal changes.
“These laws are not enough — we need to keep the political momentum going to implement and then monitor these laws,” said Tunisian activist Ikram Ben Said, describing the danger of allowing women’s rights to be pushed down the political agenda.
“There are a lot of economic and security issues in the region and there is a tendency to forget about women’s issues. In Tunisia, we always hear from politicians that this is not the priority now.
“Having these laws is very important but the most vital thing is implementing them and having the tools to do so.”
This will be part of the focus at a regional conference taking place during the 16 Days campaign on Dec. 5 and 6 in Beirut, where high-profile women’s rights campaigners will discuss ways to transform new laws into enforceable and budget-backed policies to protect women and girls from violence.
“It is of utmost importance to increase coordination between women’s rights organizations and exchange best practices in terms of advocacy and policy implementations,” said Michael, “There is much more work to be done in order to attain gender equality for women, girls, men and boys.”


Gutted Syrian town begins modest reconstruction, street by street

Updated 19 July 2018
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Gutted Syrian town begins modest reconstruction, street by street

  • Mountains of rubble still block many of the main thoroughfares in Harasta, a town outside Damascus
  • After a blistering weeks-long assault, Syria’s government recaptured it in March

HARASTA, Syria: Khaled’s delicate hands were accustomed to cutting and styling hair in his Syrian hometown Harasta. Now, they’re hauling concrete and sweeping floors to repair homes ravaged by years of fighting.
Mountains of rubble still block many of the main thoroughfares in Harasta, a town outside Damascus held for nearly five years by armed rebels.
After a blistering weeks-long assault, Syria’s government recaptured it in March, and displaced families have been trickling back to check if their homes survived.
Khaled, 35, watches them cross a security checkpoint and approaches to pitch his services: knocking down walls, clearing rubble, and sweeping up debris.
“I used to be a barber, but now I’m a laborer. I wait for families to enter and offer them my services in cleaning and restoration,” he says.
Khaled fled Harasta in 2012 to the nearby town of Al-Tal, where he still lives with his family. Every day, the father of three commutes to Harasta to find work.
His own house still stands, but he cannot return yet: temporary security measures dictate that people who live outside the town cannot stay past nightfall.
“I work with three other people. We use hammers, brooms, and buckets of water. Work is on and off,” he says.
“Clients pay us whatever they can afford.”
Harasta lies in Eastern Ghouta, recaptured this spring by Syrian troops with a deal that saw thousands of rebels and civilians bussed to opposition territory elsewhere.
Others, like 45-year-old Hassan, chose not to leave.
The former petrol station worker remained in Harasta throughout the rebel reign and decided to stay in its aftermath, too.
Hassan now works with Khaled, transporting rocks and other materials in his pick-up truck to construction sites.
“This is the only work in Harasta that pays right now,” says Hassan, wearing a dirty wool sweater despite the heat.
Harasta was once home to 250,000 people, most of them Syrians from elsewhere in the country who worked in the capital but sought cheap rent.
Now, just 15,000 people remain, town officials estimate, unable to leave until security forces clear their names.
With the use of personal cars banned, boys get around on bicycles while women and toddlers shuffle along on foot.
Many of Harasta’s large residential blocks or industrial complexes have been pulverized by strikes, artillery, and mortars.
They stand like massive grey honeycombs overlooking dusty streets still stripped of signs of life, months after fighting has stopped.
Mohammad Naaman, 50, was terrified his home would be among those gutted by fighting — and can hardly contain himself when he finds it still standing.
“I was shocked to see most buildings collapsed. It’s true my house is devastated compared to before, but I’m happy it’s still there at all,” says Naaman.
He, too, fled to Al-Tal in 2012 and still lives there.
The doors and windows of his Harasta home have been blown out and cracks run up the walls, threatening collapse.
But in the living room, a layer of dust blankets plastic flowers still standing in their vases.
“Whatever happens, it’s still my house, and my house is so dear to me,” Naaman says.
Like his neighbors, Naaman’s first step was removing the rubble and debris from his home, dumping them into the main street nearby according to instructions by local authorities.
Vehicles provided by the public works ministry transport the rubble to a local dump, separating metal out so that concrete can be turned back to cement and reused.
“We removed 110,000 cubic meters of rubble from the streets, but there’s still more than 600,000 to go,” says Adnan Wezze, who heads the town council running Harasta since the regime’s recapture.
As he speaks, a demolition digger works on a two-story building. Its metal arm reaches up to the roof and picks off slabs of concrete precariously perched there.
Authorities are working fast to demolish buildings “at risk of collapse, because they present a public safety threat,” says Wezze.
Many urban hubs across Syria, particularly around Damascus, have been hard-hit by hostilities, and President Bashar Assad said this month rebuilding would be his “top priority.”
But Law 10, a recent decree which allows for the expropriation of property to redevelop an area, sparked fears that millions of displaced Syrians would not get the opportunity to make a claim to their land.
Wezze insists that Harasta’s modest efforts were fair.
“We only demolish after getting permission from the owners,” he says.
If they are not present, Wezze adds, “their rights are still protected. We’ve requested proof of property even before areas are designated as development projects.”
“No resident of Harasta will lose his rights — whether they’re here or in exile.”