Around 450 girls graduated Friday from an Aikido program designed to help them resist the threat of sexual violence, in a program organized by the Lebanese Council to Resist Violence Against Women, and funded by the U.S. Embassy’s Middle East Partnership Initiative.
Over 2,500 students, both boys and girls, from 20 schools in Beirut and North Lebanon, took part in the year-long “Together We Make a Change ... Stop Sexual Abuse,” program, which taught awareness on issues relating to sexual abuse and harassment, to both students and parents.
For those girls who were interested, a 16-week Aikido program was also on offer, developed and carried out by members of the Aikido Union of Lebanon. Around 450 girls took part, with 130 demonstrating the skills they had learned at Friday’s ceremony.
Randa Yassir, the project manager, spoke to The Daily Star about the program’s benefits and aims.
The program was developed with the intention of teaching students “the idea that any person can attack them, or sexually abuse them, either by words or by touching,” Yassir said, and enable them to “understand the differences between flirting, let’s say, and sexual harassment.”
Satisfied that the project had achieved its goals, Yassir said the program had also taught students they had the right to say no, should anything happen to them, whether now or later in life.
“They will be more ready to understand that they have the right to say no; that they have the right to defend their bodies and that they have to speak out and tell a grown up person in school, or their parents, that something happened to them.”
Moreover, she added, students have been taught that if they are sexually harassed or abused, it is not their fault. “They know now not to feel guilty about that, because the person who did the attack, or who is abusing them in any way, is the person who is in the wrong.”
Targeting girls from the age of 13 and up, the Aikido program represents a new step for the council in that it promotes preventative measures.
While the NGO has a listening center which offers counseling to women who have been attacked, it’s hoped that teaching girls self-defense methods will reduce future instances of sexual assault.
“Traditionally, in our society, we have always been told that as women we are the weaker members of the family; if your brother hits you, you are told not to hit him back,” Yassir said.
“It’s something cultural in our minds, making us think that as physical beings we are not ready to defend ourselves. So if someone is sexually harassing us, trying to rape us ... we surrender because we believe he might be able to hurt us more if we try to defend ourselves or try to struggle and this idea makes us have this lack of self-confidence,” she added.
Women and girls are also often taught that their behavior or attire leads them to become victims of sexual harassment or assault, and this attitude must be tackled, Yassir said. Girls are often encouraged not to respond to threatening comments, for example, as a response might be perceived as encouraging the perpetrator.
“These are all incorrect ways of thinking,” she added.
Speaking at Friday’s event, Richard Mills, the U.S. Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, highlighted the program’s importance, given that worldwide one in three women experience some form of gender-based violence, and that one in five will experience rape or attempted rape.
“It is vitally important that we educate young men and women about sexual violence, as well as healthy and respectful ways to engage with each other,” Mills said.
“I am happy to see both men and women here today. It is essential that men work hard in efforts to stomp out gender-based violence, to educate young men and woman, and provide tools to men and women to de-escalate conflict and to learn self-defense,” Mills added.
In a video shown Friday, students from each school spoke of their experiences in the program, and what they had learned.
A student from Ecole Frere in the Koura village of Deddeh said the course “opened up new boundaries for us and we got to know the subject on a social and legal level.”
One student at the Amlieh School for Girls in Beirut said that “thanks to this we are able to confront, learn not to be afraid and have the courage to control our attacker.”
While students and principals at all 20 schools were very enthusiastic about the program, Yassir said funding for a follow-up project had yet to materialize.