Making politics matter for women and youth in Lebanon

October 25, 2017

By Doreen Khoury

Politics has a bad reputation in Lebanon. But one Hivos partner is working to encourage women’s political participation by addressing political apathy and disinterest in young people.

Instead of being the process and practice through which we improve our lives, it is viewed by many citizens as a ‘dirty business’, corrupt and dishonest. It is a highly restricted private club, only open to patriarchal leaders, their sons, and anyone with enough money and arms to impose their political will. Sectarian leaders jealously guard their turf, and ordinary citizen often feel stripped of their value.

So it is not surprising that young people feel disengaged from politics. Without extensive political networks, family connections and – very crucially – money, it is next to impossible for youth to enter mainstream politics.

If young men find it challenging to enter high political office in Lebanon, young women face an onslaught of obstacles and discriminatory practices and attitudes  that make politics a hostile arena, often best avoided [for more, please read our baseline study on women in Lebanese politics.

But when youth are not interested in politics and prefer to stay at home rather than make their voices heard, any chance at meaningful political and social reforms fades and political stagnancy ensues.

Older generations – dominated by male decision-makers – continue to dominate political discourse and shape the Lebanese economy and society according to their own narrow interests.

Linking political activism to rights and gender equality

How can we encourage youth to engage in politics? And how can we engage young women to link political activism to their rights and equality as citizens?

Hivos partner, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), organised a summer gender youth camp in 2017 precisely to address these questions.

Held on 8-13 August in the Lebanese mountain village of Kfardibyan, 70 young men and women aged between 18 and 27, took part in interactive presentations, exercises, outdoor activities such as hiking and entertainment (a local music festival was ongoing at the time).

They discussed the new electoral law, human rights in Lebanon, public communication systems, women’s participation in politics, women’s rights and the obstacles they face if they choose to be active in politics. Young people were encouraged to participate and voice their opinions. They took part in group exercises that pushed them to think and come up with solutions themselves. In one session, groups of participants were tasked to write down all the inequalities women may face and propose solutions to eliminate all forms of discrimination. The aim here was to show young people that politics can also mean working together to identify the social and economic problems around then and coming up with solutions and ways of working together. 

Young women understand the importance of human rights and political engagement

More engagement on gender equality with young men is needed

The young men were not so easily swayed. They displayed limited knowledge about human rights in general and women’s rights in particular. They behaved as if the issue did not concern them and at first did not take  the camp activities seriously. A different approach to engage male participants was clearly necessary.

Ali Sleem said that one approach was  to encourage the young men to take women’s rights seriously was to get them to think of their female relatives to bring the topic closer to home. For example,  if a mother is not given a fair opportunity to work she won’t be able to provide for her children. By showing them the difficulties mothers can face and how it affects their children, the young men began to feel that  women’s rights is a direct concern for them.

Lessons learnt: Universal human rights education for youth and young women

LADE staff observed a clear change in behaviour and perceptions when it came to gender equality by the end of the camp. This change was documented in a video which LADE will release soon.   However, it was felt that they only scratched the surface over the 5 days and more activities of this nature are required in the future. Encouraging active youth engagement in politics is not a one-off event, but requires sustained commitment by both civil society and young people.

Another lessons learnt at the camp is that young people in Lebanon also need basic universal human rights education, alongside awareness on women’s rights and political engagement.  For example, in one of the sessions, men and women agreed with rights for Lebanese women, but did not recognise the same rights for Syrian women refugees in Lebanon. Ultimately women’s political participation can only be addressed when there is recognition and belief in universal human rights. Having more women in politics cannot be addressed in a vacuum.

LADE is a Hivos partner in the Women Empowered for Leadership (WE4L) Programme which is funded through the Kingdom of the Netherlands Foreign Ministry Funding Leadership Opportunities for Women (FLOW) fund.