As the sun rose on May 18, Sara al-Amin was shot 17 times with an assault rifle and killed; her husband was later arrested and charged with her murder. Amin is just the latest in a growing number of women in Lebanon who are beaten, harassed and killed by their partner or spouse.
Amin’s brutal murder comes despite legislation – enacted on April 1, 2014 – that explicitly criminalizes domestic violence. A year later, nothing seemed to have changed. This is why Amin’s death has left many so jarred.
On May 30, more than 1,000 people gathered in a public outpouring of anger, demanding the government do more to protect women. The demonstration was organized by KAFA, a local NGO that supports victims of abuse and a key leader of last year’s legislative battle. The organization fields around 2,600 calls a year to its helpline for victims of domestic violence.
Rothna Begum, researcher on women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch, says levels of domestic violence remain stubbornly high in the region. Lebanon is one of only five countries in the region with laws on domestic violence, but the legislation only goes so far: the biggest issue is proper implementation.
KAFA founder Leila Awada says the law has sparked a notable change in the behavior of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) in cases of domestic violence, as the law now threatens jail time for ISF members who do not report cases. She says this has improved reporting and helps those who come forward.
Nonetheless, the law is riddled with shortcomings. Civil society groups criticize the vague definition of domestic violence, the failure to specifically criminalize marital rape, and as KAFA spokeswoman Maya Ammar points out, the removal of gender from the text, leaving the law without specific mention of issues faced by women.
A senior official at the Social Affairs Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the government takes the issue seriously, adding that the ministry led an inter-departmental taskforce, bringing together government and NGO representatives, to look at issues of protection. It has published a code of ethics and a training document for medical professionals on how to handle suspected domestic violence cases.
However, the official said, “the main gap in combatting domestic violence is that there’s no national referral system for cases. There also needs to be more training for police – they’re the front line in the field.”
Begum, too, stressed the need for a national strategy, but went further, pointing out that the legislation, while a positive step, is still up against a legal and social framework that does not assist victims of domestic violence. Religious rather than civil courts govern many social and family matters for each of the 18 official sects in Lebanon, and each sect has its own personal status laws.
Women seeking divorce are subject to different laws based on their sect’s specific court, and many of Lebanon’s conservative religious communities may not view domestic violence as sufficient grounds for granting a separation.
“We found that every single one of the personal status laws discriminates against women,” said Begum, pointing to the lack of financial support or alimony for divorced women, the difficulty for women to get and retain custody of children, and the ability to get a divorce in the first place. “Many women don’t realize these issues until they run into them, and then they find out that the whole system is against them.”
Last year’s law is feeding into this unequal system. Protection orders are temporary until the courts — at times, the religious court — decide the outcome of the case. If a sect’s judiciary does not recognize domestic violence as grounds for divorce, legal protection is removed.
“The killing of Amin stoked the debate” about domestic violence in Lebanon again, said Ammar. This case has reignited the anger felt by many at the failure to act over the unrelated killing of three women by their spouse in a single month last year. This helped galvanize support for the protest on May 30, she added.
“Countries have a duty of care and a responsibility to act against domestic violence,” said Begum. “The new law has gone some way to improving protection for women, but it is still largely inadequate and unimplemented.