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By Laudy Issa

WE4L partner Maharat Foundation examined the current access to information that women in Lebanon have and the challenges facing them through a roundtable discussion held on September 28.

The event, which coincided with the UNESCO International Day for the Universal Access to Information, brought together journalists, relevant government experts from different institutions, and civil society actors to discuss the applicability of the information access law, the gender-specific and general problems facing women seeking information, and how access to government data can enable women in leadership positions.

Representatives at the roundtable discussion highlighted the need for better production of information prior to its proper dissemination.

Zeina El Helou, a senior researcher at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), discussed the difficulties researchers faced in determining the number of female candidates who ran for the Lebanese Parliamentary elections. The candidates had not been asked to specify their sex when submitting their candidacy applications. The lack of gender data also led to a government media campaign that mentioned 111 female candidates, despite the number of women who ran being 113. Journalists also discussed similar experiences when attempting to access information, including the number of government employees in Lebanon, that is not properly produced.

Zeina El Helou, a senior researcher at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), discusses the need for better information production.
Zeina El Helou, a senior researcher at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), discusses the need for better information production.

“Prior to the dissemination and sharing of information, the production of information is an essential problem here in the country,” said El Helou. “Before we get to a point where we’re questioning whether or not to share information, we have to have produced and collected it in a way that simplifies its classification and, in turn, simplifies its dissemination.”

The Lebanese law on information access was passed more than a year and a half ago, without the formation of a national committee that monitors its implementation. Member of the Lebanese Parliament Ghassan Moukheiber highlighted that the law lacks a gender dimension, encouraging civil groups to demand the addition of a paragraph that ensures the general right to equal information access for all individuals. Moukheiber also discussed the strength of the written law and mentioned the lack of awareness of the law as being a key factor that stops its proper implementation.

“The information access law is rich and strong, but knowledge of the law is key to its application,” said Moukheiber, who also mentioned that not having government electronic platforms should not intervene with the application of the law, which states that information must be disseminated through traditional mediums.

Member of the Lebanese Parliament Ghassan Moukheiber and Maharat Foundation Project Manager Layal Bahnam discuss the access to information law.
Member of the Lebanese Parliament Ghassan Moukheiber and Maharat Foundation Project Manager Layal Bahnam discuss the access to information law.

The Gherbal Initiative’s Right of Access to Information Law (RAIL) project monitored whether different Lebanese state administrations abide by the information access law, and was the first in the country to map out the structure of the Lebanese government to conduct their study. Out of the 146 bodies mandated to abide by the information access law, only 34 responded to the question asked by the researchers. Of the administrations that responded, only 19 did so within the legal deadline of the access to information law.

The access to information by media and civil society groups provides a solid basis for the formation of a well-informed, factual public opinion and for building effective advocacy campaigns that influence public policies regarding women’s rights. The roundtable discussion raised several points concerning journalists, including the lack of knowledge on how to access information and their reliance on easier, quicker methods than bureaucratic governmental procedures of acquiring it for news stories with imminent deadlines.

“How will I access information that’s stored in a primitive way?” questioned news reporter Yumna Fawaz. “In the age we talk of artificial intelligence, we still have information that is written by hand here. The importance is in the data. Everything has to become digital.”

The improper archiving and distributing feeds into the gender-specific challenges facing women with regards to information access. Martine Najem Kteily, an executive board member of the National Commission for Lebanese Women (NCLW), discussed several of these issues. The WE4L partner’s representative considered the financial cost of acquiring information for women who lack economic independence and the unavailability of e-platforms as two obstacles for women seeking information, with the latter requiring females to physically go to governmental institutions despite the lack of means to protect themselves from harassment.

Journalists, relevant government experts from different institutions, and civil society actors watch a video from the Gherbal Initiative.

Another main issue raised by Kteily is the need for gender-sensitive representatives in governmental institutions who are responsible for information access.

Rather than training new representatives to occupy the positions required by the new information law, Kteily suggested allowing the already-existing gender focal points to occupy the information access positions to ensure gender-sensitivity and increase the likelihood of gender mainstreaming.

At the event, two individuals occupying the gender focal point positions in different governmental institutions complained about the bureaucratic process of reaching ministers, who often shrug off gender issues as being secondary. A gender focal point representative from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, the only ministry to have a gender focal unit rather than one individual occupying the position, highlighted the need for gender focal departments within other ministries.

The roundtable discussion hosted by Maharat suggested the need to combine efforts to demand effective application of the law, and the need for a gendered dimension that ensures equal opportunities between females and males in accessing and using information.