Sectarian system, familial ties keep Lebanese women locked out of politics

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Women in Downtown Beirut protest against the upsurge in domestic violence in Lebanon and for a law criminalizing it. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Bassam Alkantar

Published Friday, October 17, 2014

A study by the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering about the organizational needs required to promote women’s participation in political parties and trade unions in Lebanon raises a central question about the role of these political parties and trade unions and about the decline of their role in molding the political and social landscape. This decline is made more acute by the absence of women’s participation in their leadership.

The Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering (RDFL) published a nation-wide study yesterday titled Organizational Needs to Promote Women’s Participation in Political Parties and Trade Unions in Lebanon.

The study conducted by Ghassan Salibi and Saadi Olwa represents one of the results of a regional project titled the Promotion of the Role of Political Parties and Trade Unions in Enhancing Women's Political Participation. This program is being implemented in five Arab countries with support from the European Union in partnership with Oxfam Novib.

Attorney Manar Zaiter from RDFL said the project is designed to monitor the status of women’s political rights, outlining their features and characteristics, understanding the obstacles that stand in the way of activating them and the extent to which political parties and trade unions take into consideration the question of integrating a gender perspective into their internal mechanisms. The project is also designed to develop mechanisms and strategies, formulate recommendations, devise models capable of developing women’s capabilities, promote their political participation, encourage them to engage actively in political parties and trade unions, advocate for their access to leadership positions, exert pressure to take measures and devise mechanisms that enable political parties and trade unions to put strategies aimed at involving women in political action and policy making and adopt a quota for hiring women.

The study chose six out of 12 active political parties in Lebanon. The choice was made in a way that tried as much as possible to reflect the nature of party politics and structure and the singularity of Lebanese party politics. The research adopted a participatory approach with female party members.

The parties that were chosen were: the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the Phalange Party, the Progressive Socialist Party, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Communist Party and the Future Movement.

The study shows that one or two women are represented in each party’s leadership body. None of the parties that were studied adopted a quota for women in their internal organization, 33 percent absolutely rejected a women’s quota, 50 percent appointed women in some leadership positions and 16.6 percent nominated women for parliamentary elections.

The study concluded that the sectarian political system affects women’s overall political participation and that the familial, partisan and sectarian system that governs municipal, mayoral and parliamentary elections is not friendly to women, but rather discriminates against them. Political parties take into account the families and the system that govern representation in the municipal elections and sects in the parliamentary elections at the expense of women.

The study recommended that political parties support the presence of women; empower their female members; advance their capabilities; raise awareness among party members about the importance of the role of women and their active participation; encourage women; allow them to reach decision-making positions; adopt a quota for women in party elections; adopt women’s issues and not confine them to female party members only nor to women’s committees; nominate women in municipal and parliamentary elections and finally, female party members should seek to impose women’s issues on their political parties’ agendas.

Women’s representation in unions

In the second part of the study, which addressed the question of trade unions, several criteria were adopted to choose a research sample of Lebanese unions. A number of unions from sectors with a high proportion of female workers compared to other sectors were selected. The percentages ranged between 20 and 80 percent. The unions that were chosen are Middle East Airlines and Affiliates Companies Syndicate, Union of the Régie Workers and Employees, the National Social Security Fund Union, the Union of Bank Employees in Mount Lebanon and Beirut, Private School Teachers Union, Union of Ogero Employees, Union of Bank Employees in North Lebanon and the Beirut and Mount Lebanon Union of Water Authority Employees.

The study shows that the ratio of women’s enrollment compared to men’s in six out of eight unions is 40 percent and more, all the way up to 75 percent. In the last two remaining unions, the ratio is 11 percent (Water Authority) and 20 percent (Ogero), which is close to the ratio of women working in the sectors that these unions represent.

The study revealed that participation is weak among both men and women in unions, but relatively speaking, men participate more. Participation increases among both genders if their political parties ask them to, or if the issue is important, in which case participation increases even without the approval of their political parties. That is what happened with the Union Coordination Committee’s organizing for wage hikes.

Were there initiatives by trade unions to increase women’s representation in their executive councils? Women activists said that in five unions, there were no initiatives (Water Authority, National Social Security Fund, Education, Middle East Airlines and Beirut Banks).

In the Union of Bank Employees in North Lebanon, there was a resolution and a sort of campaign, in the Union of Ogero Employees there was an initiative to pass women’s quota but it failed because of the position taken by political parties and in the Union of Regis Workers and Employees, women’s quota was adopted for the union’s internal organization.

The study suggests establishing women’s committees inside trade unions to encourage women to participate, submitting a draft to the executive council on gender policy that the union has to adopt including implementing a women’s quota in the next elections and organizing a communication campaign with women to determine their special needs and preparing an education campaign among women and men about gender issues and the importance of effectively involving women in unions.

The study also suggests preparing training programs that include committee members and female union activists to train women on the concepts and skills of union organizing.

Studies, articles and statements in the past 20 years have all argued for the need to introduce changes in the systems and structure of the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL) as well as its performance and behavior in general. There are deep flaws in CGTL’s democracy, independence and effectiveness which prevent it from playing the role of the defender of workers’ and employees’ rights. The study indicates that 95 percent of union leaders represented in the CGTL admitted in a poll that there is a need to develop this union. Most of these leaders – 59.10 percent – did not hesitate to admit that the reason behind the decline in union enrollment is “workers’ lack of trust in the union.”

Follow Bassan Kantar: http://about.me/bassam.kantar

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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