BEIRUT—Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces and a group at the Lebanese American University here have collaborated in a training program for officers in the country’s national police force to improve their response to violence against women.
The first round of officers, about a third of them women, completed the training program in September. A Lebanese law passed in 2014 criminalizing domestic violence gave the security forces new responsibilities in responding to cases of domestic violence after years of public campaigns, protests and marches. The training program was led by Lina Abirafeh, director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the university, and was financed by the government of the Netherlands.
“This commitment by the ISF represents a political will to build capacity in dealing with gender-based violence, and in sensitizing personnel to the issues,” said Roula el-Masri, director of programs at the Lebanese women’s rights organization Abaad. “The officers are learning how to understand the psychological profiles of survivors of domestic violence, and the violent men who are its perpetrators.”
The nonprofit organizations working on domestic violence in Lebanon say that they get thousands of calls a year from women in distress, including both family members and domestic workers, who are usually women. Although many such cases are never publicized, the more horrific cases some times reach the news media: a woman beaten to death with a pressure cooker, for instance, and one who died from drinking insecticide, having apparently been forced to do so by her husband. Last year a man was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison, including time served before sentencing, after having brutally killed his wife and spitting her blood into her mother’s face, according to the court ruling. A 2008 Human Rights Watch report on domestic workers in Lebanon found that they die at a rate of more than one a week, with the deaths often classified as suicides.
“The problem of domestic violence in Lebanon is huge, and the law does not work in favour of women,” Abirafeh said, noting that under the 2014 law on sexual violence a husband can still not be charged with raping his wife.
‘A Turning Point’
Roula el-Masri said that before the 2014 law was passed, police officers treated cases of domestic violence as a private matter outside the scope of the law. “Before this, the ISF would reflect the cultural norms of the country,” she said. “If a woman went to a police station to report domestic violence, the police would say they can’t get involved in a domestic dispute.”
The 2014 law allows the country’s civil courts to issue protection orders in cases of domestic violence. These orders can be effective within 24 hours, and the Internal Security Forces are responsible for enforcing them. “This has been a turning point,” el-Masri said.
The Internal Security Forces in Lebanon have a variety of duties, ranging from traffic control to intelligence and counter-terrorism. In recent years the forces have received financing and professional development from governments and international nonprofit organizations to support their role in maintaining the country’s internal stability. In 2016, for example, the U.K. government gave 13 million pounds (about $17 million) to support the security forces.
Together, the Lebanese American University and the Internal Security Forces produced a training book for officers. The book covers such matters as the state of Lebanese law on gender-based violence; techniques for the investigation of human trafficking; Lebanese law on children; and prevention of gender-based violence in prisons and jails. It also discusses Lebanon’s international obligations as a signatory to human-rights agreements and the role of the security services in enforcing them.
Under the new law, the security forces’ duties now include referring those who have been injured by domestic violence to suitable medical, psychological and social care, and enforcing protection orders issued by civil courts.
Abirafeh noted that protection for women under Lebanese law is still quite limited. “Lebanon is extremely complicated,” she said. Matters of personal status—such as marriage and divorce, care of children and inheritance—are adjudicated by the legal traditions of the 15 officially recognized religious groups in Lebanon.
Bassam Khawaja, a researcher for Lebanon and Kuwait at Human Rights Watch, gave a cautious welcome to the program. “It is excellent that the ISF are moving forward with a program of this kind, but their rhetoric isn’t always matched by action,” he said, citing a 2013 report by Human Rights Watch on the use of torture and physical force by ISF officers against vulnerable suspects in custody.
The officers’ completion of the training program was recognized at a ceremony at the Internal Security Forces’ training barracks at Aramoun, north of Beirut. Thirty-five officers from the organization and the General Security force received certificates; of these, 13 have proceeded to a more intensive course.
Lina Abirafeh said that only experience will tell if the program has had a noticeable effect on Lebanese society. “The results will be seen anecdotally, not in numbers,” she said.