Abolishing Lebanon’s “rape law”: spotlight on ABAAD’s campaign

A woman wears a wedding dress behind the bars of a pop-up prison in Beirut, Lebanon. The campaign's strong imagery is partly what made it so successful, according to Ghida Anani, the head of ABAAD.

In August 2017, lawmakers in Lebanon made international headlines when they repealed Article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code. The provision, denounced by women’s rights organisations for many years, allowed rapists to avoid prosecution if they married their victims.

Behind this effort is ABAAD, a Girls Not Brides member in Lebanon, who spearheaded #Undress522. Launched in early 2016, the campaign would eventually lead to the repeal of the law. We spoke to them about their campaign success and what they learned along the way.

Tell us a bit more about your campaign #Undress522.

Our campaign targeted Article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code. The article provided that, in case a marriage took place between a rapist and their victim, all prosecutions and sentences had to be suspended.

ABAAD saw this article as a blatant violation of women and girls’ human rights. Through this campaign, we wanted to repeal article 522, and insist that rape is a crime that should be punished.

An activist wearing a white dress in a jail that represents marriage. The stunt aimed to highlight a situation where the perpetrator of a crime is rewarded through marriage while the victim is sentence to life imprisonment. Photo credit: ABAAD.

We also wanted to stress that women have the right to refuse marrying their rapist and that we need to end their stigmatization.

In some contexts, families pressure the daughter to marry her rapist because the family’s honour is at stake. Sexuality is often a taboo and some traditional social norms grant society a “right of inspection” over women without them having a say.

We started our campaign early in 2016, but women’s rights organisations have been advocating for the abolition of article 522 for at least 15 years.

The #Undress522 campaign had a broad reach – spanning across media, social media, stunts, and outreach to parliamentarians. Could you walk us through your campaign strategy?

We organised a series of “shock” actions to sensitise the public on article 522. We wanted to convey the idea that forcing a woman or girl to marry her rapist meant sentencing her to lifelong rape.

We took part in the Beirut Marathon: activists dressed in white sheets with slogans such as “Rape is a Crime. Abolish 522!” They had covered their heads with boxes to show how women and girls forced to marry their rapist were deprived of their freedom.

Activists marching in the streets during the Beirut marathon in protest of article 522. Photo credit: ABAAD.

As part of the 16 days of activism, we launched “Undress 522 – A white dress does not cover the rape”, a video which reached an estimated 20.8 million people online and was accompanied by banners displayed everywhere in Lebanon.

We organised sit-ins in front of the Committee of Administration and Justice when it drafting the law abolishing article 522 to be sent to the Parliament.

We partnered with renowned artist Mireille Honein to hang 31 white dresses between the palm trees on the Corniche of Beirut. Each dress symbolised a day of the month where women and girls could be compelled to marry their rapists.

This image of white wedding dresses on the Corniche of Beirut made the headlines around the world. Photo credit: ABAAD.

What do you think was key to your campaign’s success?

The development of a strategy combining advocacy, lobbying of stakeholders and sensitisation of public opinion on the existing legal framework was key to our campaign’s success.

The visual aspect of this “shock” campaign also played a crucial role in sensitising public opinion.

What was more successful or impactful than you had anticipated? Less so?

Communication level

We were surprised that only 1% of the Lebanese public opinion knew about article 522. This lack of information made the campaign very impactful. During our actions, we often received shocked reactions from people who could not believe that such a provision could exist in the law.

Advocacy and policy level

We were happy to receive the support of key decision-makers, including MPs or religious leaders.

A positive outcome was that the Committee not only dealt with article 522 but with several articles of the penal code as a whole, introducing the civil judge for the first time in matters related to marriage and family.

Now that lawmakers have agreed to repeal article 522, what happens next for efforts to address child marriage and gender-based violence in Lebanon?

Abolishing article 522 won’t be effective without tackling the lack of knowledge about women’s rights and gender-based violence at both the institutional and community levels.

Also, it is essential to ensure the implementation of protection mechanisms making the repeal of article 522 not only effective in the penal code but also in practice.

ABAAD will continue to raise awareness of the legal framework and the reproductive health services in Lebanon. We will also continue to train key stakeholders such as the Internal Security Forces on how to deal with sexual violence survivors, with the aim of breaking the survivor-blaming culture.