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Humanitarian response in Lebanon: changing social norms or reproducing them?

While gendered realities are increasingly acknowledged and addressed by international organisations and agencies, in practice, gendered social norms and attitudes have proven to be difficult to address. 

Informal settlement, Bekaa, Lebanon, May 2017. Picture by Lana Khattab. All rights reserved. Sitting inside a tent in an informal settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon, my colleague and I were conducting a focus group with Syrian teenage girls. To my surprise, one young woman said that she does not shower during menstruation. Other girls in the group nodded in agreement and one girl exclaimed “you could get a sack of water in your uterus!” 

While the topic of the discussion was related to water, sanitation and hygiene – or WASH, a handy acronym adopted in the international development context – findings related to misconceptions came out of what initially appeared to be more of a technical discussion. In fact, we found misconceptions relating to menstrual hygiene to be widespread across all governorates and among Lebanese, Palestinian as well as Syrian girls and women. This was not the first or only time that misinformation or ‘myths’ surrounding practices came up in our research, showing time and again that the root of gendered practices, based in social norms and attitudes, are not usually addressed by aid agencies.

Last year, a research team from Malmö University conducted an extensive study for UNICEF Lebanon, covering all the agency’s programme areas, namely child protection, education, health, WASH, disabilities, communication for development and child rights. The study is being used by UNICEF Lebanon as a baseline for their Country Programme Document 2017-2020, and by Lebanese ministries for planning and delivering services across the country. 

Gender cuts across all sectors 

The focus of the study was to examine the barriers and drivers of positive change among Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians, by studying their levels of knowledge, their attitudes and practices. A wealth of data was collected through 7,000 household interviews with caregivers, 48 focus groups with parents and children, and over 40 interviews with ministries and development practitioners. The findings were presented in a final publication in January 2018. 

Gendered attitudes can, and do, trump positive practices

The scope of this research allowed for an in-depth understanding of the key challenges and opportunities for creating a more enabling environment for positive change. In every indicator that we were asked to research, gender arose as a cross-cutting analytical category. While organisations are increasingly aware of, and work towards addressing, gender dynamics, in practice it remains a challenge to address social norms within limited timeframes, budgets and without the adequate methodology or experience.

In the wider context of the Syria crisis response in Lebanon, many aid agencies have focused on providing information to people, especially to Syrian refugees, about best practices in relation to WASH, education, protection and gender-based violence (GBV), among other topics. While some information appears to be value-neutral, for instance about personal hygiene, the anecdote at the beginning of the article shows that misconceptions do exist and if not discussed openly and addressed correctly, a one-time, top-down information session will not persuade the girls to shower during their menstruation. 

Gendered differences are symptomatic of a wider gendered social order

In informal conversations with aid workers, not few of them lament how early marriage is still widespread despite intensive awareness-raising around child protection and GBV. According to a senior UNICEF Lebanon staff during a meeting in Beirut in September 2017, awareness-raising on child protection should have reached around 2 million people in Lebanon between 2011 and 2017, most of them Syrian. While there are desperate financial difficulties that partly force parents to marry off their children at a young age, social norms also play a big role. Social interventions that focus on changing people’s attitudes, require them to shake up their core belief system and rethink the ‘nature’ of things. They are therefore much more time- and resource-intensive than one-time sessions or other types of interventions, which might be faster to implement as well as easier to quantify and measure.

Everyday gendered differences are symptomatic of a wider gendered social order

Our study has shown that gendered attitudes can, and do, trump positive practices, even if people know that it is the right thing to do. For instance, focus groups on the topic of children’s health revealed that some Syrian women do not leave their home or do not move around freely, unless accompanied by a male relative. Since women are primarily responsible for children’s health, and their husbands are usually out late working, our research found that some children are not getting vaccinated, not because of a lack of available services or unknowledgeable caregivers about the importance of vaccines, but rather because of prevailing gender norms.

My son is one year old and has not received any vaccines yet. We know he needs to get them, but my wife cannot leave the house alone and I am always at work or too tired to go with her” – Young Syrian father, Beirut suburb, May 2017

Everyday gendered differences are symptomatic of a wider gendered social order. In virtually all matters relating to children, female caregivers are the primary decision-makers and agents, but must often rely on their husbands and older family members for financial support, mobility or approval. For aid agencies who have as their objective to improve the knowledge of caregivers on matters relating to children, it makes sense to reach out to mothers, for instance through household visits, awareness sessions organised at community centres or through their visits at the healthcare centres, among other places. 

Pervasive gender norms and distinct gender roles

While women have their remit of responsibilities, men do too. Focus groups with younger and older men across Lebanon highlighted the societal and familial expectations that are placed on boys and men, which in turn do not facilitate a more gender-equal division of household chores and childcare. For instance, Syrian teenage boys in Akkar, North Lebanon, mentioned that it is expected of them to contribute to the household income. A 15-year old boy stated, “our parents do not explicitly tell us to quit school and go work. We know we have to earn money and help them.” His 16-year old friend added that, “it is the man’s role to provide for his wife and children”.

I got married at 15 years. All my sisters got married at 14 years. My father decided it, but I did not mind” – Syrian girl, informal settlement in central Bekaa, May 2017

Throughout the research, Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian parents differentiated between boys and girls. For instance, boys were argued to benefit more from freedom than girls, including being able to work independently or stay out late. Girls were perceived to face more personal safety and security issues, making it necessary to restrict their mobility. Moreover, caregivers spoken to during focus groups all stated that boys have more opportunities to participate in organised group activities and more choice in deciding who and when to marry compared to girls.

They [the aid agencies] tell us that a child becomes an adult only at 18 years. But in our community, that is not true. A boy becomes a man, and a girl becomes a woman, at 15 years. That’s when boys need to start working and when girls can get married” – Syrian man, informal settlement in Akkar, North Lebanon, close to the Syrian border, June 2017 

Although aid organisations are increasingly concerned about promoting gender equality, when faced with people’s immediate needs and the urgency to addressing them as fast as possible, social interventions can rely on, and reproduce, unequal gender roles and norms, rather than working to improve them. For instance, targeting mothers for information about children’s health or education is valuable, but may be limited given that some women do not have full mobility or financial means to follow up on the information and given that it leaves out the father’s role in parenting. 

Crucially, gender dynamics and challenges exist in all programmatic areas. While social norms are difficult to change at a wide scale, aid agencies have the responsibility to work in a gender-sensitive manner, to promote sustainable positive social change and to provide the necessary financial, technical and human resources to do so.

About the author

Lana Khattab works as project manager for Malmö University, Sweden. She has over five years’ experience working on gender and development issues, including on the Syrian crisis.


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