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(Beirut) – Lebanon’s religion-based personal status laws discriminate against women across the religious spectrum and don’t guarantee their basic rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Lebanon has 15 separate personal status laws for its recognized religions but no civil code covering issues such as divorce, property rights, or care of children. These laws are administered by autonomous religious courts with little or no government oversight, and often issue rulings that violate women’s human rights.

The 114-page report, “Unequal and Unprotected: Women’s Rights Under Lebanon’s Religious Personal Status Laws,” found that, across all religions, personal status laws erect greater barriers for women than men who wish to terminate unhappy or abusive marriages, initiate divorce proceedings, ensure their rights concerning their children after divorce, or secure pecuniary rights from a former spouse. The laws also violate children’s rights, most significantly the need to consider their best interests in all judicial decisions concerning their welfare.

“Not only are Lebanese citizens of various religions treated unequally under the law, but women are treated unfairly across the board, and their rights and security go unprotected,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Passage of an optional civil marriage code, alongside badly needed reforms to existing personal status laws and religious courts, are long overdue.”

Human Rights Watch analyzed 447 recent legal judgments by religious courts adjudicating divorce, custody, and spousal and child support, and interviewed lawyers, judges, social workers, activists, and women who went through divorces or custody battles in religious courts.

Lebanon’s constitution explicitly guarantees respect for the “personal status and religious interests” of the individual, whatever their religion. This constitutional protection has often been used as a justification to keep personal status laws under the exclusive realm of religious authorities, block attempts to adopt a civil code or ensure greater oversight over Lebanon’s religious courts and laws.

The 1936 decree that established the basic personal status order and that remains operational recognized freedom of belief, granting each person the right to opt out of their religion’s personal status laws and marry under a civil code. But Lebanon has yet to adopt a civil code despite numerous campaigns since independence to do so.

The 1936 decree required each religious group to submit its personal status code and trial procedures to the government and the parliament for review and ratification to ensure compliance with the constitution and public order. But while the Christian and Jewish confessions submitted their laws for review, the Sunni confession objected to the requirement, and a later decree was issued stating that the provisions of Decree 60LR did not apply to Muslims. In the vast majority of cases, the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court for all civil cases, will not consider the substantive decisions of the personal status courts.

“I forced myself to bear beyond what a human being can take, all the injustices and violence,” said Mireille, a Maronite woman who endured years of physical abuse but only sought a divorce after her children became adults because of discriminatory custody provisions. “My daughters, who are my soul and my life, were the main reason... I couldn’t even bear the idea of losing them.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed 243 divorce cases and found systematic discrimination against women, including because of their disadvantaged access to divorce or court procedures that burdened women financially and created barriers to ending their marriage and protecting their rights.

Under Lebanon’s Shia, Sunni, and Druze laws, men can demand a divorce at any time, unilaterally, and without cause, while a woman’s ability to access divorce is limited, and often at great cost and after lengthy court proceedings. In principle, these laws allow women to have an explicit clause inserted into the marriage contract stating that husband and wife have an equal right to unilateral divorce, but this right is rarely exercised due to social pressure and customs. Only 3 of the 150 divorce judgments before Islamic courts that Human Rights Watch reviewed included such clauses.

Divorce is difficult for both men and women under Christian laws, but two key aspects of the Christian laws impact women differently and disproportionately. Christian men can convert to Islam and remarry without divorcing – Muslim men are legally allowed up to four wives, while a Christian woman may not enter into a new marriage without terminating her first marriage. And although spousal violence is grounds for desertion, short of attempted murder it is insufficient to end a marriage quickly.

Seven of the 27 women who wanted to end their marriage that Human Rights Watch interviewed said they did not approach religious courts for a divorce because they could not afford the costs of court proceedings or they feared losing primary care responsibility for their children.

Religious courts do not recognize joint custody of children, usually granting custody to the woman until a certain age, after which the father gets custody. But the father remains the child’s legal guardian, passed to their male relatives in some cases if the father dies.

In reviews of 101 decisions in Christian, Islamic, and Druze courts, Human Rights Watch found that while religious judges often applied the maternal custody age cut-offs without examining what would be in the best interest of the child, some judges, particularly in Christian courts and more recently Sunni courts, were willing to consider that factor. But the religious courts rarely looked at the father’s behavior in deciding custody issues, while scrutinizing the woman’s conduct in ways that reflect social prejudice or stereotypes. The result was a greater likelihood that the mother would be stripped of custody than the father.

Of 27 women interviewed, 23 said that their principal obstacle to divorce was their vulnerable economic position. A major contributing factor is the failure of personal status laws to recognize a wife’s economic and non-economic contributions to the marriage, including the value of her unpaid domestic labor, or the concept of marital property. In addition, cultural, religious, and traditional expectations and norms undermine a woman’s economic independence and contribute to her financial dependence on her husband.

This system means that for example women can contribute, financially and otherwise, to assets in their husband’s name but receive no compensation at the time of divorce. Women also frequently gave up their financial rights to get out of bad marriages.

Amina, who wed under Sunni personal status laws, gave up her financial rights even though her husband had abused her, because her husband demanded it in return for granting her a divorce. Amina said that the judge’s only involvement was to advise her to accept the conditions.

Lebanon’s current system of personal status laws violate women’s human rights, including to non-discrimination, equality in marriage, and at its dissolution, physical integrity, and health. These rights are all guaranteed in several international human rights treaties that Lebanon has ratified. Under international law all children are entitled to have their best interests be a primary consideration in all decisions made by official bodies concerning their welfare.

The Lebanese parliament should adopt an optional civil code that would ensure equal rights for all Lebanese who wish to marry under it, Human Rights Watch said. The government should exercise oversight over religious courts and authorities to ensure compliance with human rights obligations and bring them in compliance with Lebanon’s international human rights obligations, guaranteeing women and men equal rights in all personal status matters.

“Ending a marriage or determining who a child should live with after divorce are often difficult decisions,” Houry said. “Lebanon should ensure a level playing field between men and women.”

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