BEIRUT: The time is right to make progress in securing more women’s participation in politics, stakeholders and officials said at a conference in Beirut Wednesday. “It’s the perfect timing to stress and to focus on women’s participation in politics,” Nayla El Khoury, project manager for Direct Action for Women: Reform, Inclusion and Confidence (DAWRIC), told The Daily Star at the “Women’s Political Participation: Challenges and Solutions” conference in Beirut’s Hamra area Wednesday.
One of the primary objectives of DAWRIC, a British Council campaign funded by the European Union, is to promote gender equality in politics, both nationally and locally. Wednesday’s conference included the launch of an awareness campaign on the issue.
EU Ambassador to Lebanon Christina Lassen praised the vast increase in the number of female candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections, up to 111 from around 12 in the 2009 elections.
“What we need to see now, of course, is if these candidates end up on the lists,” Lassen told The Daily Star. “It shows that there is a little bit more momentum in this because of course Lebanon has been particularly low in the statistics when it comes to women’s participation in politics.”
During a panel discussion, Lassen said that female participation had the potential to bring wide-ranging political and social benefits. “World Bank studies have actually shown that people have higher expectations that women are less corrupt in politics, and it seems to actually be a fact,” she said.
“There is also a tendency – this is U.N. studies showing this – that women in politics care more for their local communities, they put more into the social and economic projects in their communities, so it has very broad effects when women are engaged in politics.”
In his speech to the conference, Minister of State for Women’s Affairs Jean Ogasapian said, “women’s work should not be limited to gender issues as they have a bigger role to play in national issues, such as the economy, security and oil and gas.”
Panelists also underscored the need to increase support for female role models.
“The times are changing,” Al Jadeed news host Georges Salibi said. “Today it is easier to host women, not only to discuss gender equality, but also to talk about various political, social and economic issues.”
“If you always see the same men in suits out there, women will not think they can do this and I think it is extremely important that we see more and more women out there who are experts in their fields,” Lassen told the audience. “Of course women can be experts in oil and gas and in foreign policy and military analysts and things like that.”
However some members of the audience criticized the involvement of foreign organizations like the EU and the British Council in the project, suggesting they were imposing an external agenda on Lebanon.
U.K. Ambassador Hugo Shorter strongly refuted this argument. “There is a direction that history is moving in, not just in Lebanon but internationally,” Shorter said.
“There is a groundswell in many sections in society, and realizing that supporting that movement fits with our values, and fits with international norms and values, and therefore deciding that we should support it. So I think it’s important not to give the suggestion that this comes from outside, this is very much a domestic Lebanese movement here in this country.”
Shorter did, however, accept criticism that the U.K. did not have a perfect record regarding equal female participation.
“As British Ambassador I’m very far from claiming that the U.K. has achieved perfection in this area,” he said. “Although our Parliament is more diverse than ever before there is still a long way to go.”
Lassen nevertheless pointed out that the involvement of women in the parliaments of her own country and the EU was considerably higher than that of Lebanon.
Country Director for the British Council in Lebanon Donna McGowan pointed out to The Daily Star that local partners took a dominant role in all projects.
“The really important dimension of this project is working with municipalities and actually men supporting women’s engagement at the municipality level has been hugely impressive,” McGowan said, noting that the organization was “always in partnership with local partners at all levels, whether it be government, civil society [or] private sector because we are responding to the needs of the main players at national, regional levels.”
“It’s not our agenda, it’s a Lebanese agenda,” she said.
Lassen stressed during the panel discussion that any change should be locally driven.
She refuted the suggestion that support for women’s political participation would alienate some political parties. “Everyone can have their own political standpoint,” she said.
“What we note is that the policy of this government, at least when we saw the declaration of the new government when it came into power early last year, [was to be] very clear that they wanted to move on this issue.”
Both Shorter and Lassen noted their hope that more men would take part in the movement.
“I strongly believe that a society where women have a full role to play is good for men and women, and therefore men should be campaigning for this as much as women,” Shorter said.
Wednesday’s conference was also designed to raise the issue of the personal status law, which adversely affects women. Khoury told The Daily Star that tackling the law was a priority for DAWRIC.
Following Ogasapian speech at the conference, Joumana Merai, director of the Lebanon branch of the Arab Institute for Human Rights, spoke to the minister about a draft law proposed by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil that would allow Lebanese women to pass on citizenship to their children.
“We hope that you convey our voices to the government in Baabda because we will not agree to a law that doesn’t encompass everyone,” Merai said.
“I completely agree with you,” Ogasapian responded, “and I think the law should encompass every woman in Lebanon.”