Passport Series: Building a stronger Lebanon, empowering women

Set on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and bordered by Syria and Israel, Lebanon is a small country with big implications for the Middle East.

The smallest mainland country in the region (even smaller than Connecticut), it is also one of the most diverse countries -- both culturally and religiously.

Originally home to the Phoenicians, what is now Lebanon was at one time or another also occupied by the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottoman Turks, and the French (who ruled until Lebanon declared independence in 1943) -- all of which have left their mark on Lebanese culture.

The Economy

By the mid-20th century, Lebanon was a notably prosperous and calm nation. The capital city, Beirut, was often referred to as the “Paris of the Middle East” and became a popular destination for tourists from all over the world. But a long and bloody civil war from 1975 to 1990 abruptly extinguished this title. Over these 15 years, an estimated 150,000 were killed and almost 1,000,000 Lebanese were displaced. A once thriving economy, heavily reliant on tourism, was devastated and national output was cut in half.

Considerable effort was funneled into rebuilding the economy after the civil war but was undone  after a month-long war in 2006 (also called the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War). Decades of intermittent periods of unrest, and the subsequent need for reconstruction, have left Lebanon with an exorbitant amount of public debt -- 127.9% of its GDP and the 6th highest in the world.

However, Lebanon’s economy has continued to grow thanks in large part to its banking system and once-again booming tourism industry. 65% of the Lebanese workforce is in the service sector and tourism specifically contributes to 10% of GDP -- making the economy especially vulnerable to political instability. And in the finance sector, wealth has been concentrated into the hands of a few, creating a notable divide between the rich and the poor.

High emigration has caused many Lebanese “commercial networks” to sprout up throughout the world, most notably in Brazil, Ivory Coast, and Australia. In fact, about one-fifth of Lebanon’s GDP is from remittances sent by people who work abroad, which total almost $8.2 billion annually.

Beirut is a beautiful city and massive tourist attraction, but it is also religiously complex and home to a huge wealth disparity.


Interestingly, no official census has been conducted in Lebanon since 1932 because of the sensitive balance between the religious groups, which means that much of the information we have about Lebanon’s demographics is estimated.

Deemed the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East, the population is an estimated 60% Muslim and 39% Christian.

Upon establishing its independence, Lebanon installed a unique political system known as “confessionalism” -- a power sharing mechanism that attempts to fairly represent all 18 religious communities in government.

Many high-ranking offices in Lebanon’s government are reserved for members of specific religious groups. For example, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shi’a Muslim, just to name a few. This makes the system the subject of intense controversy, as many citizens believe appointments should be based on merit rather than religion alone. 

The 18 different religious communities all have different laws -- meaning that there are certain matters, such as “personal status,” that differ from group to group, including marital rights. 

Firyal used a $2,000 Kiva loan to buy handbags and jewelry for her retail business.


One such matter where this has become a grave problem is with women’s rights. Lebanon has historically been staunchly patriarchal, and the role of women has traditionally been restricted to mother and homemaker. Violence against women continues to be a prominent issue

KAFA -- an NGO dedicated to the achievement of gender equality and women’s and children’s rights -- estimates that 75% of all Lebanese women have been victims of physical violence from a husband or male relative at some point in their lives.

A draft of Lebanon’s Law to Protect Women from Family Violence was approved by the Cabinet in 2010, but has yet to be passed in parliament. Religious courts strongly oppose the bill as they feel this law would undermine their jurisdiction over matters of personal status and diminish their authority.

Top Sunni and Shi’a authorities disapprove of the law on the basis that women are protected by Sharia law -- which should be the only authority for governing issues related to Muslim families.

Domestic violence cases are generally heard in religious courts, where preservation of the family unit often trumps protection of women.

4 alarming facts about women’s rights in Lebanon:

  • Marital rape is not considered a crime.
  • Women married to foreigners can’t pass their nationality onto their children
  • Women’s bodies are legally the personal property of their husbands
  • An estimated one woman dies every month as a result of family violence
These facts about the status of women in Lebabon are very disheartening. But at Kiva, we are hopeful that microfinance can provide these women with economic opportunities which can hopefully shift perspectives over time. 

Make a loan in Lebanon today. Or better yet, make a loan to a woman in Lebanon! Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and this would be a great way to celebrate early.

Stay tuned for the second installment of the Lebanon Passport Series, where we will look at how Kiva's Field Partners in Lebanon are working to bring financial services and access to capital to those who need it. 

About the author

Emily Wakefield

A native of southern California, Emily is a recent graduate from Santa Clara University where she studied Economics and Spanish Studies. The highlight of her college experience was the semester she spent abroad in Granada, Spain. She knew she wanted to pursue a career in economic development after reading Half the Sky. Emily will be joining the Marketing and Communications team as a Blog and Social Media Intern and is especially excited to find new and creative ways to spread Kiva’s work to more people. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, listening to country music, and re-watching Friends episodes for the millionth time.