American University of Beirut

Lebanon's Anti-Sexual Harassment Law No. 205 Passes...Now What?

As is the case in most contexts around the world, when the level of external stresses increases, a rise in violence against women is seen. Lebanon is no different. The escalation of gender-based violence in Lebanon alarming, with a surge in the number of cases reported formally and informally. Gender-based violence reports are emerging from Lebanese households, public spaces and workplaces, with the economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic contributing to increasing vulnerability and therefore exposure to risk. All communities in Lebanon are suffering, and concerned stakeholders, including public sector offices, legal bodies and employers are not properly equipped to deal with the growing number of gender-based violence cases. Indeed, even before the crises hit, little legal recourse existed to provide legislative protections. At work, for example, very limited legal recourse was available to protect employees against sexual harassment. The lack of anti-sexual harassment policies and associated reporting mechanisms to ensure the required victim and witness protections is hindering progress towards safe and equitable workplaces.

Whilst official data pertaining to sexual harassment and gender-based violence collected in Lebanon and the region is still scarce, findings from the regional KIP Index by the Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership (CIBL) for Women at the at the Olayan School of Business (OSB)​, American University of Beirut (AUB), show that the absence of formal sexual harassment and discrimination policies force women to leave the workplace when subject to such incidents. Based on this prevalent finding across the Arab MENA region, the landmark anti-sexual harassment Law No. 205 passed in Lebanon in December of 2020, aids in bringing this disconcerting matter to light and proposes a starting point to tackle workplace harassment. Law No. 205, which comes after years of lobbying and activism from various groups within the country, marks some progress to combat this issue, with strong protections indicated in the law.

For many years, CIBL for Women, along with its partner network and in coordination with activist groups, have been lobbying for the law to be passed. The implementation of the law serves as a solid starting point, to work towards decreasing the levels of gender-based violence.

“It has been years that feminist activists, gender machineries, individual politicians, and human rights organizations have been pushing for protections, drafting legislative suggestions, and mobilizing for change,” shares Dr. Charlotte Karam, PhD, Director of International Partnerships at CIBL for Women and Endowed Professor in Gender and Inclusive Systems at the Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa. Although the new Law No. 205 is far from perfect, it is an important milestone in the trajectory of efforts to ensure safer workplaces for women and other vulnerable groups,” she comments.

A challenge tied to the law, is the proposed fund by the Ministry of Social Affairs, intended to offer support to the victims of sexual harassment and to rehabilitate the perpetrators. Grave doubts have arisen, pertaining to the Ministry’s ability to establish the fund, given the current economic crisis and the limited financial capabilities of the Lebanese government.

What does the law offer victims, employers and the general public?

The Anti-Sexual Harassment Law No. 205, does not limit the protections against sexual harassment to just the workplace, but also covers harassment in “any place.” The law also takes into consideration the dynamics of power and authority in social relations, and provides varying degrees of punishment based on the crime and the perpetrator’s status. For example, should the perpetrator have a position of dominance or authority over the victim, a heftier punishment applies, the penalty increases and incidents do not have to be recurrent. Moreover, heavier penalties have been imposed, as per the Law, related to cases where the perpetrator is a supervisor or a public officer, if the perpetrator abused of their right or if the victim is a minor or has special needs. In the last case, the offence becomes a felony and is no longer considered as a misdemeanor.

With the passing of the law, perpetrators could spend up to four years in prison and pay hefty fines (up to 50 times the minimum wage), if they violate the sexual harassment law.

Furthermore, the law does not exclude the possibility of disciplinary sanctions that the perpetrator may face at work, and guarantees the victim’s right to claim compensation for the moral damages incurred. Protection of the victim and of witnesses are also protected under the law, from any discrimination they might face in the workplace.

Mitra Tauk, Equity/Title IX Coordinator at AUB, believes that there is room for improvement with Law No. 205, to provide clearer definitions and to avoid room for interpretation of the law, which may be affected by “unconscious biases of people and more seriously of the decision maker. The main concerns raised were related to what to do if the owner or CEO is the offender, and I guess here comes the importance of Law No. 205,” shares Tauk.

The also law fails to provide clear complaint or reporting mechanisms. In addition, it does not provide support or further information for employers in the implementation of the new anti-sexual harassment law in Lebanese workplaces, which is deemed indispensable in the fight against sexual harassment. So where to the victims, employers and society as a whole go to ensure that the law is enforced?

CIBL for Women, along with its partner network including UN Women, the Government of Canada, UNDP, the Government of Sweden, The Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB), ABAAD and Seeds for Legal Initiatives have been working to raise awareness on what constitutes sexual harassment and gender-based violence, interpret the law for the general public. They have also been actively working with Lebanese employers to support them in applying the law through supporting the drafting of internal policies and ultimately to its the implementation and enforcement in the workplace.

Where does Law No. 205 lead us?

A key element to ensure that the law is effectively applied requires policies and frameworks within Lebanese workplaces to be implemented and actioned. Employers must also take all necessary measures to ensure the victim/survivor’s protection and the 

protection of the witnesses, at all stages of the initial and preliminary investigation and during the trial. No discrimination or infringement of the legally established rights may be done to the victim/survivor who refused to submit to acts of harassment.

In other terms, employers cannot, whether directly or indirectly, punish or infringe on the victim/survivor’s terms of pay, promotion, transfer, renewal of work contract or impose any disciplinary penalties against victim/survivor. As is the case in other societies, should the victim or survivor not have clear reporting mechanisms and feel safe to come forward with their case, sexual harassment will most likely continue.

Policymakers and employers also need to clearly state the purpose of the policy, which is to prevent sexual harassment, to protect the victims, and to take deterrent measures against the offender. In addition, the definitions of what constitutes sexual harassment need to be clearly outlined, including verbal and non-verbal advances. Lastly, employers need to affirm that sexual harassment is a form of gender based violence that can happen between the same and opposite sex / gender parties. In doing so, employers can begin to ensure a safer working environment, free from sexual harassment, with zero tolerance policies in place.

With anti-sexual harassment policies in place, how should internal employer cultures shift?

Having a carefully worded anti-sexual harassment policy does not suffice. For internal cultures to shift, ongoing awareness sessions and workshops are needed, to ensure employees understand it, and are not afraid to “use” it. These sessions can be used to encourage employees to “speak up” and in doing so, break taboos and stereotypes. According to Joelle Bou Abboud, HOLDAL Group’s General Legal Counsel & SDG 5 Ambassador, 360 degree awareness sessions are an integral part of the company’s change management journey and overall social promise. “Alongside releasing an internal sexual harassment policy, continuous awareness sessions have been fundamental — for the “victim” to know what she or he has been through qualifies as sexual harassment and she or he has all the tools to do something about it,” she shares. HOLDAL is also working to raise awareness on sexual harassment (and any other form of harassment) in the workplace at every stage, to break the stereotypes, starting with onboarding sessions, to implementing daily monitoring and instant reporting mechanisms.

“The policy and the process are of utmost importance, but beyond this, the ownership and engagement of all internal and external stakeholders is required for safer workplaces,” she adds.

In the case of a sexual harassment claim, the employers’ role is integral, to try and engage and educate the victim on the investigation process and outcome, to make well informed decisions. Employers when met with cases of sexual harassment, need to take it upon themselves to commit to a thorough, prompt and confidential investigation (where possible) of the reported incident/complaint. And, in cases where it is proven that the incident did occur, the employer should punish the harasser in a manner proportionate to the enormity of the act.

Marianne Itani, Sustainability Coordinator and Project Manager at Beesline Apitherapy, shares what the organization based in Lebanon with over 150 employees is doing, to ensure workplace protections. “Beesline’s team supported the law and knew the importance behind it. However, their only problem was that they do not trust Lebanese governmental institutions, but according to them, they are at least supported by Beesline’s management and disciplinary committee and they feel safe and protected in the workplace,” shares Itani. Beesline has also implemented training sessions, and placed complaint boxes in unmonitored areas to ensure comfort and confidentiality.

What constitutes a solid anti-sexual harassment policy? Employers take note

Internal anti-sexual harassment policies need to be improved and tailored over time based on the size of the organization, the unique experiences of employees and any challenges that may impact the business or its employees.

Having detailed policies are highly encouraged, to leave little room for interpretation. Effective policies should include clear and detailed definitions of what constitutes sexual harassment and examples of gender-based violence.

In addition, internal policies should include zero tolerance clauses, disciplinary measures and sanctions, clear reporting systems, investigation options and outcomes, judicial routes, consequences of intentionally void complaints, as well as internal dispute resolution methods/options.

“An integral and effective anti-sexual harassment policy must ensure a safe working environment free from sexual harassment through a zero-tolerance policy,” shares Layal Sakr, Attorney at Law, SEEDS For Legal Initiatives. By putting in “place clear reporting, investigation and sanctioning mechanisms, along with ensuring equality, confidentiality and protection of victims and witnesses,” shares Sakr, workplace protections can be improved.

Can Lebanon be free from sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment and gender-based violence are prevalent across the globe, even in countries with zero tolerance policies and harsh punishments for the perpetrators. At CIBL for Women, we believe the passing of Law No. 205 is an encouraging first step to protect the Lebanese community and in specific, employees, from being subject to sexual harassment and gender-based violence. However, without the enforcement of the law within public and private institutions, as well as clear and safe reporting mechanisms, perpetrators will continue to subject innocent victims to abuse, and victims may continue to suffer in silence.

What is considered ‘sexual harassment’?

Sexual harassment in the workplace can take on many forms and can greatly impact performance and increase absenteeism and employee turnover. Globally, women and other vulnerable groups are more at risk to be victims of sexual harassment, than men (according to the International Labor Organization and Human Rights Watch). Many victims, however, are unaware that they have been subject to sexual harassment. This is due to lax regulations and policies within companies, which raise awareness on sexual harassment and discourage it, the absence of laws in many countries which criminalize sexual harassment, as well as methods of reporting that are deemed risky for victims to seek support.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines sexual harassment as “a sex-based behavior that is unwelcome and offensive to its recipient.”

Sexual harassment exists in two main forms:

  • The first form is related to job benefits, whereby promotions, pay increases or job security are linked to different forms of forced or suggested engagement in sexual behavior
  • The second form is through intimidation or humiliation of the victim, creating an uncomfortable workplace setting.

What are the behaviors that constitute sexual harassment?

  • Physical behavior could mean that the perpetrator is not respecting a comfortable social space or is touching or abusing the victim.
  • Verbal abuse can be carried out in person, or via phone, text or email. It is tied to any comments related to a person’s physical appearance, sexual orientation, or personal matters that the victim is not comfortable sharing.
  • Non-verbal sexual harassment takes on many forms. It could be through visual elements, sexually suggestive signals, or even sounds.

Useful links

  • Law No. 205 (Arabic) link
  • SADER Legal Monitor key points on Law No. 205 link
  • Human Rights Watch Missing key protections in Law No. 205 link

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