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OPINION: Lebanon’s sexual harassment law: a sea-change for the Middle East?

by Aref El-Aref | El-Aref International Law Office
Thursday, 7 January 2021 17:39 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A woman sits atop of a building overlooking Nejmeh square in downtown Beirut, Lebanon October 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Lebanon is the first Arab country to outlaw online sexual harassment. Enforcement will be key if wider change for women’s rights in the Middle East is to happen

By Aref El-Aref, partner with El-Aref International Law Office since 2003, and been working in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa Region

With coronavirus cases surging around the world and countries entering new lockdowns you might easily have missed an important moment for women’s rights in Lebanon and the Middle East. 

On December 21, 2020, Lebanon became the first Arab country to pass a law criminalising online sexual harassment.

Criminal courts in Lebanon used to condemn perpetrators through an outdated criminal code related to indecent acts which did not prohibit workplace sexual harassment.

Now we have a law that provides a broad and clear definition of sexual harassment and will enable swift prosecution for many types of sexual harassment, including those which take place in the workplace.

The law also encompasses harassment that takes place online through social media and other technological mediums.

The most flagrant perpetrators may spend up to four years in prison and pay fines up to 50 times the minimum wage. Additionally, the law affords protection to both the victims and any witnesses who testify against the accused.

Like many new laws it is not without its limitations.

Some will criticise the lack of regulation ensuring anonymity for victims. If charges are made public, victims could be reluctant to file a complaint - especially women- due to stigma that exists in Lebanon’s conservative culture.

The law also requires the victim’s complaint to be filed with the public prosecution in order to initiate criminal proceedings (except for minors and people with disabilities), and the decision on whether to prosecute will ultimately be taken by the prosecutors.

Lebanese authorities should issue decrees to ensure enforcement, and to put in place an action plan for implementation, taking into consideration a preventive and protective aspect for the victims, retaliation, and to make sure that law enforcement officers are trained to protect such victims and their anonymity.

The law provides for the creation of a specialised fund at the Ministry of Social Affairs to offer support and rehabilitation to victims and raise awareness about sexual harassment.

This legislation will have a huge impact in Lebanon and signals an important change for Middle East. According to UN Women, 37% of Arab women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. Governments in the Arab world should follow Lebanon’s footsteps and issue a well drafted and detailed law criminalizing harassment (including sexual harassment) in all its forms and aspects.

In light of its drastic political instability, economic and pandemic crisis, Lebanon does not have the economic means for implementation and funding of the “specialized fund” sought to be established in the new Law, nor does it have the sovereign trust and means of its people to be able to spread social awareness within its patriarchal community in Lebanon.

While this new Law, as enacted by the Lebanese legislator, may not be perfect or complete, it is a starting point and an inspiring shift in the Arab world.