Independence: a gender perspective

This week’s blog comes from GPG’s Programmes Manager Moataz Ghaddar, who has been supporting and leading on our work for Women’s Political Representation in Lebanon. As the country just came together to celebrate its independence day, he assesses the state of gender equality in Lebanon – and whether its women have gained true independence.

On Tuesday 22nd November, Lebanon marked its 79th Independence Day”. Unfortunately, the conditions in which the Lebanese people celebrated this historical day were tragic and dark – and “dark” here takes a literal dimension, as the electricity sector in Lebanon is notoriously dysfunctional. The country is facing its worst economic crisis in centuries, a drastic increase in unemployment, a dying lira, deteriorating environmental problems, a disastrous medication shortage, and a sick and crumbling healthcare system.

Furthermore, another indicator of a country’s well-being – gender equality, and in particular equal representation in politics – is still lacking in Lebanon. The country ratified the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); it endorsed the 2030 Agenda and 17 sustainable development goals; its women, who make up 49.63% of this “independent” Lebanon, have been able to vote since 1952. Despite that, the political representation of Lebanese women is one of the lowest in the world: they only represent 6.25% of the parliament, 5.4% of the municipalities, and 4.1% of the board of ministers.

The solution to this issue is simple but not easy; we need more women in decision-making positions. Over the past few years, GPGF has been working with a team of international and local experts on women’s empowerment and political participation in the Lebanese local government. GPGF’s recent research on the topic dives deeply into the context of the recent municipal elections, addressing why women’s local political participation is so low, what opportunities can be identified within this context for aspiring women candidates, and what actions could be taken to embrace those opportunities and pave the way for women leaders.

The research concluded that Lebanese women are actively engaged in all aspects of economic and social life through employment, community work, and advocacy efforts, yet this has not translated into electoral success. The underrepresentation of women results from a combination of factors; one important hurdle is the country’s male-dominated, sectarian political structure infused with political party patronage. At the local level, this structure gains a familial component, making politics a matter of negotiation among influential families.

Despite all these challenges, GPG’s research found that the local election system offers opportunities for women’s political participation:

As our interviews have shown, women candidates are forerunners of developmental activism. They promote policy-based, non-sectarian approaches, productively engage with citizen-led community advocacy, find creative solutions to people’s real problems, and disseminate new norms of political conduct.

The research concludes with recommendations to help Lebanon take one leap towards complete independence from a gender perspective:

Identify women already in leadership and build their political skills

Women involved in advocacy networks were found likely to have already developed strong governing capacities that voters could trust and to have the skills and experience required from working at community level in the worst times. The research recommended to encourage those women to run for municipal elections, including through coaching on social and traditional media, where women are underrepresented.

Promote non-affiliated campaigns

Our interviews have shown that successful electoral campaigns were typically ones where candidates ran either as part of national networks or they networked into local community groups. These campaigns sought to appear issue-focused to alleviate pressure from established parties. Persuasive campaigns were those showing a high level of engagement in local affairs. This engagement could involve providing information and access to support networks to these women as well as providing them with training and mentoring in relation to fundraising, mobilisation, and programme-oriented campaigns.

Set up women councillors’ desks in select municipalities

These would support women who have already won elections. They would provide skills, knowledge, and networks to women councillors to ensure their success once elected. These desks could serve many functions:

Form a caucus among the newly elected reformist MPs to promote women’s political participation

Lebanon’s recent elections brought 14 reformists into Parliament. Of these, 4 are women. These new MPs could be encouraged to create a formal or informal caucus in Parliament to promote women’s representation in national and local politics. The caucus could be a platform to reinvigorate the discussions within Parliament to make necessary legal and regulatory changes, including replacing the block voting system with a proportional representation system, instituting quotas for women, decreasing the voting age to 18, and holding direct elections for Mayors. Such reforms, as well as a full remodel of the voter registration system, could enhance independent turnout and election results.

Prioritise voter mobilisation strategies

Despite the growing mobilisation of grassroot advocacy networks and people’s willingness to vote for change, Lebanon still suffers from low turnout rates. In national elections, those decreased from 54% in 2009 to 49% in 2018 and 2022.Turnout rates in local elections are much lower. Our research suggested that, to make progress in this field, a special study of the problems in voter turnout at the local level could be conducted, and women candidates could then be given training on methods for overcoming these limitations in the next local elections.

This is a call for all aspiring Lebanese women leaders to continue to be strong, amazing, different and above all, resilient. Let’s make the next municipal elections a mark in Lebanese history: on the 5th of May, let’s create an Independence Day for Women in the municipalities.