By Laudy Issa
By looking at how local aid-driven empowerment programs are organized, Lebanon Support recently identified multiple areas of improvement for women's political empowerment (WPE) and women's political participation (WPP) programming in Lebanon.
The Hivos We4L partner recently launched a study, Women’s Political Participation in Lebanon and the Limits of Aid-Driven Empowerment, that suggests integral problems in the very definition of “empowerment” and the conflation of women’s political empowerment with women’s descriptive representation in leadership positions.
In Lebanon, 60 percent of WPE and WPP funding goes to increasing women’s descriptive representation in formal politics. Other, less funded, areas of focus that Lebanon Support mapped out include: Supporting gender mainstreaming in government (8.6 percent), supporting civil society networks and organizations (11.4 percent) , and supporting women voters (2o percent).
What Is “Empowerment”?
The current definition of “empowerment” that is embedded into WPE and WPP programming maintains social hierarchies both locally and globally. It assumes power is simply an asset that development agencies from the global North can give to women in the global South.
The report cites Carmen Geha, assistant professor of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut, who criticised development projects for assuming that giving Lebanese women the right information and tools will enable them to successfully run for leadership positions and occupy them.
The “learn more” approach ignores the multiple structural barriers facing women in Lebanon and across the world, and focuses on women’s individual capacities. By only advancing the capabilities of women themselves, WPE and WPP programs overlook the hostile sociocultural landscape and systems of oppression that women are embedded in.
Women can undergo in-depth training and gain all the necessary knowledge about running a political campaign, but still not gain access to leadership positions.
This study also argues that the way empowerment is defined is individualistic and does not take into account factors such as race, social class, and disability.
“This is problematic, first, because it assumes that women are a homogeneous social group worldwide who can be “added” into a specific development equation to produce gender equality,” reads the Lebanon Support document.
Are Descriptive Statistics Enough?
A "mismatch” between programmatic outcomes and the structural challenges facing women, according to Geha, occurs when WPE and WPP programs focus on statistics like the number of women in political positions.
Focusing solely on how many women are in traditional leadership to judge program success can be individualistic and short-sighted. For true success, Lebanon Support highlights a need to challenge the oppressive power structures that women exist in.
Personal status laws treat women as “secondary citizens” who, for example, cannot pass on their nationalities to their children and are not protected from marital rape. Public perceptions continue to stereotype the roles that women can and should occupy. Working women can also feel unsafe –with only 1 out of 4 women employed or actively seeking employment in Lebanon– because no general sexual harassment law exists for workplaces.
Broad structural problems, such as those above, are essential culprits behind the low rate of women’s political participation in Lebanon.
Using formal political numbers to define WPE and WPP program success also has other shortcomings, as explained by the Hivos WE4L partner: It ignores the “political events that women undertake in their daily lives.”
“As Mariz Tadros has written, such a narrow definition of what ‘counts’ as political prevents an analysis of women as political agents over time and instead, foregrounds women’s political trajectory as merely a set of sporadic “events” instead of an iterative social process,” reads the Lebanon Support study.
Which Local Women and Organizations Get Support?
The formal focus of donor organization programs is most prominently challenged through examples such as the role women have played in the anti-government protests that swept the country over the past six months.
Up until the global coronavirus outbreak forced the government to restrict public gatherings and close public spaces in Lebanon, prominent numbers of women took to the streets in protests of corruption and sectarian politics. Importantly in these protests, women’s issues became national issues that were well-accepted as public discourse and wide-scale demands.
Women became street leaders and often stood at the forefront of the protests, helping break down gender structures and pushing their demands forward. By only focusing on formal politics, international programs ignore the role of these leaders.
Prominently, this line of thinking also affects what issues NGOs focus on. To start with, WPE and WPP programs are mostly implemented through “qualified” and officially-registered NGOs in the country.
“This registration has undeniably made many NGOs subject to government surveillance, which has contributed to the dilution of more radical social justice demands,” says Lebanon Support.
Because the majority of funding goes to increasing descriptive representation in formal politics, NGOs are also hyper-aware of their internal structure. To receive funding, they must have the “right staff” and specialize in very specific topics.
This limits the range of work they might have done otherwise, and ultimately, their ability to implement holistic changes on a wider spectrum. Grassroots movements and organizations are often ignored or turned away by strict program requirements, despite their ability to be powerful allies for implementing local change.