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By Laudy Issa
With so many crises simultaneously affecting the country and its citizens in 2020, women’s rights often go underrepresented in the Lebanese media landscape. The Maharat Foundation, a Hivos Women Empowered for Leadership (WE4L) partner that focuses on driving democratic societies through the freedom of expression and a respect for human rights, sought to counter that in the past year.
“Maharat adapted its work to fit the changing context in Lebanon especially that this year witnessed the spread of COVID-19, the economic crisis and the Beirut blast,” said Jamal Hanna, project coordinator at Maharat. “These crises affected the Lebanese citizens, especially women and increased the burden of their responsibilities.”
Maharat News Platform: Highlighting Women’s Challenges
Founded by a team of journalists, Maharat sheds light on the issues faced by different women in Lebanon with great talent and in a way that is accessible to all: their online news platform.
“Maharat created linkages between women and women’s civil society organisations through media,” said the team, which worked on a variety of essential topics that range from the increase in domestic violence during the COVID-19 lockdown to the lack of participation of female nurses in their syndicate’s important decision-making processes.
The team reaches out to different groups of women, engaging them with the gender-related issues they are facing in Lebanon. Over the course of the past year, Maharat’s research and work on the ground revealed that the lockdown in specific presented multiple problems for women in the country.
For example, women teachers reflected on the additional work burden they are facing in lockdown –imposed by the patriarchal standards that assume they must take care of their children on their own, cook, clean, and handle most house chores.
“Today, she is locked in the house with a massive amount of responsibilities, work and house burdens, while all her husband does day and night is scroll through his phone and impose endless requests,” reads the article on teachers.
The list of gender challenges highlighted by Maharat is endless. The Hivos WE4L partner took the time to highlight the difficulties faced by people with disabilities, the abysmal situation of foreign workers, sextortion incidents during the pandemic, sexual harassment, online self-censorship, and the violations against Lebanese mothers married to foreigners among other stories.
Maharat Zoomed In On Women’s Online Presence
While Maharat’s own news platform offered a safe space for gender discourse in Lebanon, a focus group by the team found that the country’s women often practice self-censorship to avoid harassment.
Since the start of the October 17 revolution, more and more women have started to make appearances in public street protests. This change, however, was not reflected in their online activity.
To understand why, Maharat conducted a virtual focus group with 30 women activists from the North, South, Beirut, and Mount Lebanon with the support of the WE4L program from Hivos. Key findings of their initial survey questions suggest that a whopping “96.7 percent of the targeted participants practice self-censorship,” according to Maharat.
Additionally, more than 53 percent of the participants expressed concern in sharing their opinions online because of societal pressure and mentalities, almost 57 percent would rather share them offline, and more than 83 percent believed that speaking up online would expose them to more harassment.
Maharat also asked about digital security, with 60 percent of the activists showing lack of expertise on the subject.
“Understanding these challenges and opening up to effective solutions is important to inform further interventions, especially that social media is a main source for traditional media and the most effective tool to influence public discourse,” reads the Maharat report.
Following the initial survey, Maharat held an online meeting with the same group of women to validate their answers.
Their recommendations include capacity building in digital security, raising awareness about complaint mechanisms, facilitating access to resources for women in marginalized areas, adopting relevant laws to protect women from cyber violence, and establishing support groups for women facing harassment.
The Team Fact Checked Multiple Public Statements and Decisions
Aside from the focus on women’s online presence, Maharat also took the initiative to make virtual public spaces safer and more honest by fact checking statements, decisions, and news circulating.
“There is an evident lack of public communication that leads to the escalation of rumors and misinformation,” said the team.
From the legitimacy of decisions taken by former communication minister Mohammad Choucair to the legality of Lebanon’s state of emergency and its extension following the Beirut port explosion, Maharat sought to hold government officials accountable for what they say and claim.
The Hivos WE4L partner also sought to put an end to the fear that comes with misinformation and disinformation, through articles on everything from COVID-19 to Lebanon’s wheat reserves after the Beirut blast.
In the past year and with the support of the Women Empowered for Leadership program, Maharat provided a space where facts, research, and figures could amplify women’s voices in Lebanon.
“We had more of a cooperative relationship rather than a donor dealing with a grantee,” said the team. “We both brainstormed together and planned along the activities. This partnership reinforced our efforts and objective of empowering women for leadership and engagement in public life.”