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Myra Abdallah

Single mothers in Lebanon: a never-ending struggle

The struggle of single mothers in Lebanon, where bearing children is a right reserved for married women

"I was so scared that I decided to keep the child, and this is when my real misery began.” (Image via thisisbeirut)

“The gynecologist I visited at first—who has a clinic in a reputable hospital—refused to help me abort the child because it was illegal,” said Sahar, who turned 26 last week. “I went to another doctor’s clinic. It was a small clinic in a very poor and overpopulated street in Bourj Hammoud. I was told he would help me. I had already passed my eighth week of pregnancy; I was an unmarried 19-year-old woman and alone. The clinic was very dirty; it barely looked like a medical space. Women from various nationalities were there waiting for their turn. I knew I was putting my health at risk. I kept hesitating till I heard a woman screaming from another room. I was so scared that I decided to keep the child, and this is when my real misery began.”

 

Sahar’s story is similar to those of many women in Lebanon who decided to become mothers despite not being married. Single mothers in Lebanon are forced to fight many uphill battles, from legal, medical and religious obstacles to widespread social stigma.

 

 

Legal and religious regulations

 

Under Articles 539-546 of the Lebanese Penal Code of 1 March 1943, the 16 September 1983 version makes the performance of abortions illegal in Lebanon under nearly all circumstances. This means some women continue with pregnancies not because they want to but because they are frightened by the prospect of breaking a law. “I did not have an abortion because I didn’t want to violate Lebanese law and go to prison if someone ever found out,” said 23-year-old Manal. According to Lebanese law, a woman who induces an abortion or allows someone to induce one can be subject to six months to three years of imprisonment. “I also think that abortion is against religion,” Manal told NOW. “Killing a small fetus is against everything I believe in. I believe in God and did not want to go to hell for killing an innocent creature.” Various religious orders in Lebanon agree abortion should be banned. Religious authorities in Lebanon agree that abortion constitutes murder unless necessary to save a pregnant woman’s life. Many doctors refuse to perform abortions for these reasons and others.

 

Further, unmarried women who decide to give birth are given preferential status over those who decide to abort. In the church, single mothers are viewed as sinners for having sex outside marriage, though Father Abdo Abu Kassem, head of the Catholic Information Center in Lebanon, says that “illegitimate” children are not discriminated against. “Though they are considered to be illegitimate by the law, the church does not discriminate against innocent children who are born outside of marriage,” Abu Kassem told NOW. “We do not block requests for baptism or first communion, although we do keep a note in our internal records that the child is illegitimate in order to be able to give him information about his status—when he grows up, if he asks for it.”

 

In addition, Lebanese law also takes into consideration the situation of single mothers. According to lawyer and human rights activist Marie-Rose Zalzal, children born out of wedlock were given equal legal definition after former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud made the decision to remove the expression “illegitimate child” from the personal status registers of children. “Ever since Baroud’s reform, all children have been equal by law,” Zalzal told NOW. “A single mother is allowed to give her child any name she chooses or her own name. She can also give her child Lebanese nationality according to Article 1 of the Lebanese nationality law, which gives the child Lebanese nationality if he/she was born in Lebanon to an unwed mother. In addition, a single mother is the legal tutor of her children before Lebanese institutions.”

 

 

Social pressure and bad financial situations

 

Sex outside of marriage is still a taboo in Lebanon—society is not supportive of single mothers, and in many cases unwed women who get pregnant are veritably blacklisted by their families. “My father wanted to kill me when he found out I was pregnant,” Manal told NOW. “My mother helped me run away from home. The second I stepped out of the house, I knew I would never be allowed to come back. I was 18 years old, I was still a student at university, and I had no job and no place to go to.”

 

Few institutions are available to help these women, either, such as by offering them safe spaces. “Maryam and Martha” is one of the few organizations helping women to fight violence and social discrimination against unmarried pregnant women. “Sixteen percent of our beneficiaries are single mothers,” said director Roula Abou Diwan. “We assist pregnant women who seek our help by offering them access to medical, psychological, legal and social support. Most of the women who seek our help have been rejected by their families. Through familial mediation, we try to help the woman become integrated again in her family. The mediation is successful in only 50% of the cases. The follow-up continues until the woman is able to work and support her child on her own.”

 

Most single mothers in Lebanon face financial problems. Even when they decide to fight social stereotypes and taboos and try to live normal lives, their situations are rarely pleasant. “I decided to raise my child on my own and face society,” said 35-year-old Jana. “Before finding out I was pregnant, I had a good job. I was an administrative assistant at a reputable company in Beirut. My salary would have allowed me to provide all my child’s needs once born had I not been let go. The second my manager found out I was ‘illegitimately’ pregnant, he fired me. I didn’t file a lawsuit against him because I wanted to use the money I’d saved money for my child. Afterwards, I tried for months to find a job. Nobody who was aware of my situation would hire me. I sold my car so I could eat. When my child was born, I had already spent all the money I had to pay for the hospital. Few months later, I was unable to feed my child. The only solution I had was to sell my body. I became a sex worker.”

 

“As women, it is our right to become mothers, even if we were not married. Society should start acting according to this,” Sahar told NOW.

 

Myra Abdallah tweets @myraabdallah

"I was so scared that I decided to keep the child, and this is when my real misery began.” (Image via thisisbeirut)

My mother helped me run away from home. The second I stepped out of the house, I knew I would never be allowed to come back."