Director’s Update: March 2016

Did you know that March was Women’s History Month?! Yes – an official month where we highlight, promote, and celebrate the contributions of women past and present! I think we should be celebrating each other’s achievements and contributions every day – but this month is special because March also brought us International Women’s Day, a globally-recognized day not only to celebrate but more importantly to reaffirm our commitments to equality and solidify our strategies to achieve full human rights for all.

International Women’s Day started in 1911, when women - and men - took to the streets to demand rights for women to work, to vote, and to hold public office. And here we are – 105 years later – still making very similar demands!

All around the world, women and girls are still not able to fully participate in all aspects of social, economic, and political life. They have less choice and less voice – and we are all responsible for rectifying this imbalance. Gender equality is both a human rights principle and a precondition for a safe, just, sustainable future. But no country has achieved it!

In our world today, the majority of children who are out of school are girls. Child marriage remains prevalent. Women’s unemployment is higher than men’s. Women do the majority of unpaid work – and when they do work – they earn far less than men - in every occupation. In positions of power and decision-making, inequality is most visible because women are rendered virtually invisible. What bothers me most is gender-based violence. 1 in 3 women and girls worldwide will experience some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. To me, that is unthinkable. Unacceptable!

This month we collaborated with both the National Commission for Lebanese Women (NCLW) and United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) for two events. The first was held on 8 March at LAU with our longtime partner, NCLW. NCLW has an important history – they were first formed to prepare for the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. In 1998, NCLW was established as the official national mechanism responsible for realizing women’s advancement and gender equality in Lebanon. For this event, “Women in Municipal Councils in Support of Local Development”, we addressed the need to increase women’s presence in municipal councils, in light of the upcoming elections.

Our IWSAW Board member, May El Khalil, spoke on behalf of Dr. Jabbra. My speech on the history of International Women’s Day followed. Luca Renda, Country Director of the United Nations Development Program, emphasized the need for women’s political participation in Lebanon. This was followed by Minister of Interior and Municipalities Nouhad al-Mashnouk who addressed the issue of quotas for women. His speech was interrupted by a courageous LAU student (Tima al-Ahmad, Communication Arts) who questioned the government’s commitment to equality and highlighted the fact that Lebanese law still discriminates against women and lacks critical laws prohibiting gender discrimination and sexual harassment – despite the draft legislation that was submitted to parliament two years ago. The event is summarized here:

And with ESCWA, we celebrated the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women in the Arab world with celebrities Ragheb Alama and Nadine El Rassi, United Nations Under-Secretary-General Rima Khalaf, singer Faia Younan, and a play by LAU’s own Lina Abyad. The 10 minute skit, an excerpt of the play Hayda Mesh Film Masri” (This is Not an Egyptian Movie), was performed by 3 of Abyad’s students from LAU who powerfully demonstrated how damaging gender-based violence is.  For more details:

LAU Vice President – and IWSAW Board member! - Dr. Elise Salem spoke about LAU’s beginnings as a school for girls and its evolution into an institution that continues to support and empower women. She explained that education is a critical key to achieving gender equity, reaffirming LAU’s commitment “to infusing the curriculum on gender issues, networking with other institutions to promote women’s human rights, and to activism on gender equality and empowerment.”

This month’s Food 4 Thought highlighted the role of women in politics through an interactive play performed by 4 members of the Lebanese Democratic Gathering. The play raised awareness about the rights of women to reach decision-making positions in politics and the need to encourage more women to take part in politics in Lebanon. A vibrant discussion followed the play and several students performed their vision of how the play should have ended. Students were split in their opinion regarding women’s political participation - some believed that no real change will happen in light of the current political system and electoral law. The event was very timely given the upcoming municipal elections due to take place in May. For more details:

And – we are so proud of our LAU students who won awards at the Harvard World Model United Nations in Rome this month. Two winning students - Sandrine Frem and Christie Maike – were awarded for debating government institutionalization of violence against women. Bravo! All the more reason to learn about gender issues! Check out this article:

So – back to International Women’s Day! The theme this year was Planet 50-50 – a call for gender parity. Ensuring gender parity will have positive impacts on all aspects of economic and political life: more equality results in higher GDP and more productivity, more women business leaders bring better performance, and more women political leaders bring more prosperity. Those are strong arguments. Which one will inspire us to take action? Productivity? Performance? Prosperity? Maybe the strongest argument of all is PRINCIPLE – because we know this is the right thing to do.

While equality in numbers is critical, the presence of women does not necessarily translate into power for women. We must change society, change attitudes, change ourselves - to create space for equality. So, in March, we celebrated our foremothers. And most importantly, we renewed our commitment to standing on the right side of history – the side of EQUALITY.

Fight on!