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(Beirut) – The domestic violence law Lebanon’s parliament passed on April 1, 2014, should advance women’s rights and safety, but falls short in key areas, Human Rights Watch said today. The new law establishes important protection measures and related policing and court reforms, but leaves women at risk of marital rape and other abuse.

Women face high rates of domestic violence in Lebanon, but until the passage of the Law on Protection of Women and Family Members from Domestic Violence, there had been no specific law on domestic violence. A domestic violence hotline run by a local nongovernmental organization, KAFA (Enough), receives more than 2,600 reports of domestic abuse per year. The organization said it had reports of 25 killings of women by a family member in Lebanon between 2010 and 2013.

“Lebanon’s law on domestic violence finally recognizes that women subjected to abuse by husbands and families need protection and legal recourse,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East and North Africa women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But the law has serious flaws and the parliament should consider amendments to fully protect women from domestic violence.”

Lebanese women’s rights organizations and service providers, especially KAFA, have led a multi-year campaign for a domestic violence law. The groups have protested the law’s shortcomings, and said they would press for parliament to pass amendments to expand protection.

The law, an amended version of a draft written by KAFA that has been pending in parliament since 2010, includes positive elements such as a provision to enable a woman to get a restraining order against an abuser. It calls for establishing temporary shelters for the survivors of abuse; assigning a public prosecutor in each governorate to receive complaints and investigate domestic violence; and establishing specialized family violence units within Lebanon’s domestic police, the Internal Security Forces, to process complaints. President Michel Suleiman is expected to sign the bill into law in several weeks. On April 2, 2014, the president said he would study the law with parliament to introduce some amendments, media reported.

However, the version of the law parliament passed creates some immediate concerns, Human Rights Watch said. The law defines domestic violence narrowly, and thus does not provide adequate protection from all forms of abuse. It is defined as “an act, act of omission, or threat of an act committed by any family member against one or more family members... related to one of the crimes stipulated in this law, and that results in killing, harming, or physical, psychological, sexual, or economic harm.”

The crimes identified in the law relate to forced begging, prostitution, homicide, adultery, and the use of force or threats to obtain sex. The crimes of assault and making threats are already criminalized under the Lebanese Penal Code but have not been explicitly incorporated as a crime under the domestic violence law. The United Nations guidelines call for a comprehensive definition of domestic violence, including acts of physical, sexual, psychological, and economic violence.

One of the law’s main shortcomings is that it fails to specifically criminalize marital rape, which is not a crime under other Lebanese law. An earlier draft of the law included marital rape as a crime, but the provision was removed under pressure from religious authorities. As a form of compromise, the law criminalizes a spouse’s use of threats or violence to claim a “marital right to intercourse” but doesn’t criminalize the non-consensual violation of physical integrity itself. Advocates also criticized a reference to a “marital right of intercourse,” which does not exist under Lebanese criminal law, and fear it could be used to legitimize marital rape.

UN human rights experts and agencies have repeatedly called on governments to criminalize marital rape. In 2008, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women specifically called on Lebanon to ensure “that marital rape is criminalized and that marriage to the victim does not exempt a sexual offender from punishment.” In particular, the committee has said “that there should be no assumption in law or in practice that a woman gives her consent because she has not physically resisted the unwanted sexual conduct, regardless of whether the perpetrator threatened to use or used physical violence.”

The law’s provisions on restraining orders, which are orders for protection, are also too narrow, Human Rights Watch said. Victims should be able to secure these orders quickly if they are to be effective. The new law requires victims to seek these orders from magistrates or courts but does not address the cost of doing so, or how to obtain an order outside of court hours. Lebanon should clarify the law to ensure that short-term, emergency protection orders can be issued quickly.

“Domestic violence survivors need fast, effective remedies,” Begum said. “Lebanon needs a system that ensures women can obtain such emergency orders at any time of day.”

The Lebanese government also needs to address the country’s discriminatory personal status laws, which contribute to domestic violence, Human Rights Watch said. These laws, which govern marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and other matters for Lebanon’s many religious communities, discriminate against women in several respects. For example, they can make it hard for women to obtain a divorce or custody of their children, often trapping them in violent relationships.

Article 22 of the new law also is a source of concern, Human Rights Watch said. It states that all provisions considered contrary to the new law would be annulled except in cases of the personal status laws and the Protection of Juvenile Offenders at Risk law.

This article is contrary to the recommendation of the UN Handbook for Legislation on Violence against Women, which states that “where there are conflicts between customary and/or religious law and the formal justice system, the matter should be resolved with respect for the human rights of the survivor and in accordance with gender equality standards.” Exempting matters governed by personal status laws from the domestic violence law undermines women’s security in the home, Human Rights Watch said.

The new law includes a mechanism to fund the reforms covered by the law, which is a positive step. The government should move immediately to put the law into effect, establish a monitoring mechanism to ensure the law is being carried out, and craft national protocols and strategies relevant to all ministries involved in responding to domestic violence.

“Parliament should fix the domestic violence law without delay, and develop a national strategy to implement the law,” Begum said. “But parliament members shouldn’t stop there. They also need to reform the personal status laws that often enable such violence.”

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