By Meris Lutz
BEIRUT: Women’s rights advocates welcomed a Parliament committee’s endorsement Monday of a draft law aimed at protecting women from domestic violence, but vowed to continue fighting to see the law strengthened and expanded. “It’s a small positive achievement,” said Maya Ammar, a communications officer for the NGO KAFA, which has spearheaded the campaign to pass the law. “We knew we didn’t get 100 percent of what we asked for but we’re going to continue our work and keep up the pressure.”
Among the most important aspects of the law, Ammar said, was the inclusion of protection mechanisms for women who report abuse. The version approved by the committee provides for the creation of a specialized section within the Internal Security Forces that will include more female officers and be trained to deal with domestic abuse.
This section would have the power to issue protection orders, analogous to restraining orders in the U.S. court system, and refer the woman to a shelter. The law also allows women to take their abusers to a civil rather than a religious court, and clarifies abuse penalties.
Activists have lobbied for the adoption of the draft law for the past three years, but ran into opposition from some lawmakers, particularly over matters pertaining to marital rape and religious courts.
According to the version that was approved Monday, the powers of the religious versus the civil courts are clearly outlined, a victory for activists. Marital rape remains a point of contention, as the law in its current form does not recognize it as sexual assault. Supporters of the original draft law would also like to see the language changed to make it less general and address women specifically.
“This law’s not going to be a miracle but I think that the law allowed us to open this debate in society,” Ammar said, adding that KAFA has already started training ISF personnel on how to deal with domestic abuse cases. “The law allowed us to work on the ground with the people and through local NGOs and the media to say that we cannot deal with violence as a private matter.”
The latest victim of domestic violence to make the news was 31-year-old Roula Yaacoub, who was found beaten and comatose in the northern town of Halba earlier this month. Yaacoub died upon arrival to the hospital. She was allegedly beaten to death by her husband.
Her death pushed the domestic abuse issue to the forefront once more, sparking angry protests in Halba Sunday and Beirut Monday by activists urging Parliament to approve the law. The Joint Committees unanimously voted to approve the current draft Monday, and it is expected to be referred to Parliament for a vote during its next session, scheduled for next Monday.
Boushra Khoury, a relative of Roula Yaacoub, said she was happy that lawmakers were “on the right path.”
But Khoury added that Yaacoub’s friends and family hoped to see the law amended to include many of the original articles that had been taken out or weakened, including the one pertaining to marital rape.
“Roula’s death was a great wound but we hope this law will ensure that there will not be another Roula Yaacoub,” she said.
Some politicians also voiced their support for the law.
MP Strida Geagea has been a vocal supporter of the law in its original form, leading the Lebanese Forces’ boycott of the committee after some lawmakers removed articles and changed the language to weaken the legislation.
In a statement Monday, Geagea voiced support for the law, hinting that she, too, saw it as a start in a longer process of protecting women’s rights.
“The approval of this draft law is an important step in response to the efforts we have made to improve the status of Lebanese women, and thus enhance their visibility and prevent the exposure of their persons, dignity or rights to violence, exploitation and extortion,” Geagea said in a statement.
“What has been achieved ... is but one stop on a long march, and we wish it had been realized a long time ago, but regardless, it constitutes a breakthrough by providing opportunities to demonstrate the power of the Lebanese woman and her effective participation in building the nation and society.”
Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel also threw his support behind the bill, paying homage to Yaacoub, and expressing hope no other women would meet the same fate.
“This draft law makes violence against women subject to the civil court system and not to the religious courts, meaning that no one can speak of so-called ‘discipline’ [as a justification for domestic violence],” Gemayel said. “Any violence against women in the home or outside it will be subject to, from now on, after the adoption of the law, to the civil courts.”