Charity gives adolescent girls in Beirut a helping hand to ‘take control’ of their neighbourhoods
‘My family doesn’t let me get out of the house, because I am a girl… not a boy’
Those are the words of Yara, a 14-year-old girl whose life as a teenager in Beirut comes with far more barriers – physically and culturally – than her male counterparts.
But hopefully that will soon begin to change, thanks to the efforts of CatalyticAction, the award-winning child-focused charity which is tackling gender inequalities by turning its attention to designing and building safe public spaces specifically for adolescent girls.
Already highly-regarded for its stellar work in the region to revitalise and make local parks more child-friendly, this non-profit, which uses design and architecture to bring about tangible change, is committed to empowering young females to ‘take control of their neighbourhoods’.
In many areas of Lebanon, it says, public spaces offer very little for teenage girls, with either very basic or in some cases no facilities, along with restrictions limiting the time and type of activity they are allowed do there. “This causes many girls to stay at home, missing out on the vital social, cognitive, emotional and physical skills that are developed when using public spaces,” it says. “For many girls, this exclusion can lead to feelings of weakness, which only contributes to the strengthening of an unjust and patriarchal society.”
‘Take control of the neighbourhood’
Through a crowdfunding campaign, the charity managed to raise more than £12,000 to help with the programme, which is being implemented in a country with more than its fair share of challenges. Lebanon has deeply-rooted structural gender inequalities, and one of the highest overall gender gaps in the world, coming 119 out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap report 2022. So- called ‘gender moral codes’ also lead to the increased surveillance of teenage girls to reduce their interaction with boys, limiting their movement and shrinking their use of public spaces.
One example cited by the charity is that it is very common to see public spaces offering football courts which are usually dominated by boys. This deters teenage girls from feeling comfortable in these spaces, and so by working with teenage girls to design the spaces they want to use, CatalyticAction hopes to make headway in tackling the exclusion girls feel in these spaces.
I fear for my daughters in public spaces from being bullied and harassed verbally and physically
A pilot programme is being implemented in Karantina neighbourhood of Beirut, one of the most deprived areas of the city. It has a long history of hosting forced displaced communities, including Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrian refugees and migrants from other countries. In 2020 the Beirut port explosion had a significant impact on Karantina’s built infrastructure which, in turn, worsened what were already existing tensions between community groups.
The charity hopes that, through the work it has done in Karantina over the past few years, its strong relationship with the residents will make it easier for them to work closely with local girls to tackle this increasingly sensitive issue.
Joana Dabi, Co-founder and Director of Programmes at CatalyticAction, said: “A city that is safe for girls is safer for the whole community. As girls grow up their freedom to use public spaces shrink, while for boys it increases. CatalyticAction wants to change this by empowering young girls to take ownership of the public spaces in their neighbourhood. This will not only strengthen their role in society but also challenge unjust preconceptions dictated by patriarchal society.”
‘A safe city for girls is safe for everyone’
The charity also points to a recent incident, when news circulated on social media about a young woman being harassed while jogging in Beirut. This, it says, ‘amplifies the urgent need to ensure the safety and protection of girls and women in public spaces in Lebanon’.
“Public spaces are vital for teenage girls as they provide them with an important space outside the house for social interaction and self-expression. For this reason, public spaces must be welcoming for everyone – including girls! If girls continue to perceive public spaces as male, they will remain excluded from public life. However, with public spaces that are welcoming for girls, these spaces can have the power to inspire and encourage both girls and women to take an active role in public life.”