ISSUE 13 March 1999

Humanitarian Exchange Magazine

Advocacy around Disability in the Midst of War: The Lebanon

by Lina Abou-Habib, Oxfam, Lebanon

In August 1998, physically handicapped from Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and former Yugoslavia, as well as handicapped Palestinians, took to the streets of Beirut to protest the then Cabinet’s refusal to discuss a proposal for a disability bill. The message of those involved in the march was simple: eight years after the end of the civil war the disabled wanted to enjoy their full rights and responsibilities as stipulated by the constitution. Many felt there had been very few gains for disabled people despite the enormous amount of money invested in the country’s reconstruction plan.

The fight for representation and integration

Before and during the war disabled people were considered to be intellectually inferior and ‘immature’ and hence had to be specially catered for – generally within the confines of highly patriarchal and often confessional (religious) rehabilitation and service institutions. Crudely speaking, disability was a lucrative business and state support limited as investment in social services had never been prioritised. While the link between poverty and the prevalence of disability cannot be explored here it should be noted that disability resulting from both inadequate preventive health measures and treatments is more likely to affect the poor: most disabled in the Lebanon were, and are, poor. In addition, many disabled had little access to education and were consequently ill-equipped for any form of employment which might have allowed some measure of economic independence.

Prior to and during the war disabled people were therefore at the mercy of the so-called rehabilitation industry, which had no clear human development objectives. In the absence of any form of representation and organisation (disabled people were seen as beneficiaries only) this ‘rehabilitative’ business was accountable to no one. As a result, the social and economic well-being of people with disabilities, as well as their political representation, was perceived as unimportant. For the disabled it was a vicious circle of poverty, marginalisation, exploitation and hopelessness.

No longer prepared to accept their subordinate status a small group of disabled women and men founded the Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union (LPHU) in mid-1981. The purpose of this union was not the provision of services but mobilisation of the disabled; the union encouraged the disabled to speak out and challenge their marginalisation.

Soon after the creation of the LPHU, Israel invaded Lebanon. The human and material losses caused by this aggression overshadowed all other concerns, including the struggle of the disabled. Yet for the core LPHU it was clear that disability as a social, economic and political issue had never been a priority. Disability could not be dissociated from the overall social and political context and gradually the disabled began to challenge and oppose not only the war but also its root causes – notably the unequal distribution of wealth and power and the religious/confessional divisions which permeated Lebanese social and political systems, and which exacerbated and prolonged the conflict.

The LPHU during the war years

The war led to the massive internal displacement of some 300,000 people. During this time the LPHU sought to identify internally displaced persons who were disabled and integrate them within its activities. To date, the LPHU continues to prioritise the needs of the displaced from south Lebanon who are still regularly forced out of their villages as a result of Israeli aggression. Furthermore, the LPHU played an important role in supporting the population of south Lebanon as it actively participated in emergency relief initiatives. This demonstrated the organisation’s wider commitment to vulnerable and neglected communities.

Despite the abundance of relief and aid money during the war the LPHU was not recognised by local or donor agencies. Many agencies failed to identify mobilisation, organisation, lobbying and advocacy around disability as a key strategy for action. In addition, many of the well-established local NGOs which enjoyed eloquent and mostly middle-class leadership were unsure of how to deal with a group which was grassroots-based as well as confrontational.

The disability movement in post-war Lebanon

The end of the war did not improve the situation of the disabled, who continued to be concerned about the absence of a social agenda within the much publicised reconstruction plan. This was further aggravated by an unstable economy and the absence of disabled persons from political participation and representation in post-war Lebanon. LPHU advocacy thus went beyond looking at the specific conditions of disabled persons to call for a general overhaul of the political system.

For example, LPHU members took an active role in initiatives to curb gross environmental abuses all over the country. They also monitored and took part in grassroots mobilisation during the parliamentary and municipal elections in 1992, 1996 and 1998. The elections provided an opportunity to finally put disability on the political agenda. Notwithstanding the election of three disabled men as local municipal council members in June 1998, disability is still not perceived as a priority for social action.

The history of the LPHU shows an evolving maturity, reflected by closer involvement in ‘national’ issues and concrete efforts to integrate into and mark the local political and development scene. Close networking and collaboration with selected organisations is seen as important in creating a clear strategy towards the new government, which claims to be committed to administrative reform, and its relevant institutions. Sylvana Lakkis, president of the LPHU, states ‘We shall give them the benefit of doubt and seek their help and collaboration. However, we are ready to take to the streets again if they decide to ignore us.’

Foreign support and solidarity

The LPHU has received support from some international organisations. For Oxfam GB, for example, the validity of supporting such a movement was self-evident and indeed attractive – particularly at a time when concerns for immediate survival were paramount. The fact that a grassroots group was able to mobilise hundreds of disabled persons around the issue of rights was noticeable and worthy of support. More importantly, in a situation of violence, dissent and factionalism, such an initiative came as a breath of fresh air.

It was not crystal clear, on the other hand, how such an organisation could best be supported and empowered to achieve any impact in such desperate conditions. Questions abounded: what impact was desirable? Who becomes the natural interlocutor of an advocacy and lobby movement when the state system is almost non-existent? Skill development was needed as much as funding: interpersonal skills, skills in organisational development, in communication and in advocacy.

It is clear that early international support to the disability movement was instrumental in its evolution. This external support allowed the development of much-needed internal structures and communications systems. It facilitated contact with international bodies and fora which, over time, came to profile the LPHU as a leading grassroots movement. The support of an external organisation meant that the grassroots group could access international initiatives. The fact that, for example, members of the LPHU were able to attend the UN Conference on Women (Beijing, September 1995) was instrumental to the organisation’s development of a gender agenda. Oxfam’s network of relations and contacts in the region and internationally also led to links with new associations in Yemen which were interested in strategies for grassroots mobilisation and advocacy.

Later, in 1998, disabled people’s associations from the former Yugoslavia were put in touch with the LPHU to explore ways in which disability could be used as a uniting concern in order to transcend confessional and communal divides in that region. A mixed group of Albanian and Serb disabled spent two weeks with the LPHU during which time they participated in the association’s Disabled Rights Campaign. The experience clarified ways in which the marginalisation of the disabled (in the case of women and other vulnerable groups) cuts across confessional and other divides and should thus lead to common action and struggle.

It is important to point out that it took the direct intervention of an organisation – in this case Oxfam GB – to highlight the patriarchal nature and function of the LPHU which, for some time, had jeopardised the active representation and participation of disabled women in decision-making. Women with disabilities are very rarely at the forefront of the movements of the disabled. Gender mainstreaming in the disability movement – and agenda – is proceeding at a very slow pace; sometimes the only way for disabled women to be heard is to create their own organisation.

More information on the LPHU can be obtained from the following email address: <lphu@inco.com.lb> or from Oxfam on <oxfamleb@dm.net.lb>

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