Child sexual abuse (CSA) in Lebanon is a challenge among the Lebanese population as well as among refugee communities from neighboring countries. The Lebanese government does not regularly monitor and publish child abuse rates, including sexual abuse, meaning that most reliable data comes from NGOs and multilateral institutions. In 2021, UNICEF found that, in Lebanon, one in two children was at serious risk of physical, emotional, or sexual violence, citing financial turmoil, mass unemployment, COVID-19 lockdowns, and the refugee crisis as driving factors. Additionally, ten percent of 137 children interviewed by international NGO Save the Children in Lebanon in 2021 reported experiencing sexual violence in the past year. Himaya, a local child-protection NGO, recorded an increase in cases of CSA from 2020 to 2022, specifying that 74 percent of cases were Syrian children. In 2021, UNICEF found that 20 percent of Syrian girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen in Lebanon were married. The U.N. Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees similarly found that the number of working Syrian refugee children doubled from 2019 to 2021, increasing their exposure and vulnerability to sexual abuse, violence, and exploitation. Likewise, in 2020, Lebanese security forces recorded a significant increase in sexual blackmail of teenage girls on social media.
Several Lebanese laws address child protection and sexual abuse, but none focuses explicitly on child sexual abuse. Lebanon’s Law No. 422 (2002) was the country’s first self-contained child protection legislation. It established civil juvenile courts, juvenile judges, and social workers for case management. Significantly, Law No. 422 classifies a child who is exposed to sexual abuse as “at-risk,” triggering a social enquiry leading to protective measures, supervision, or rehabilitation. Law No. 164 (2011) on human trafficking codified severe penalties for those who force children into sexual exploitation. Law No. 293 (2014) on domestic violence established protections for “family members” (including children), notably creating a fund to prevent domestic abuse (including sexual abuse) and assist and rehabilitate victims, drawn from the Ministry of Social Affairs’ (MoSA) budget. However, substantial legal gaps persist in protecting against sexual abuse due to ambiguities, inconsistencies, and high thresholds for prosecution. Of particular note, articles No. 505 and No. 518 of the Lebanese Penal Code suspend prosecution for different forms of CSA if the perpetrator marries the victim.
Lebanon’s government has programs addressing child protection, but no publicly available strategies focus specifically on CSA. UNICEF has partnered with several agencies to launch plans, including with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education for a child protection policy plan—launched in 2018—to safeguard child rights and reduce violence in communities through schools, and the MoSA for the 2020–2027 Strategic Plan for the Protection of Women and Children. In 2018, the MoSA, UNICEF, and NGO partners rolled out the Child Protection Management System to simplify case management and recording for child-protection concerns including CSA.
Lebanon’s budget transparency ranks among the lowest in the world. The national budget uses a line-item structure in which spending is dissociated from policy objectives, and ministries do not publish budgetary documentation. Moreover, Lebanon’s expenditures have historically included high rates (over 15 percent) of off-budget spending. At the same time, NGOs and multilateral agencies have historically filled government gaps for child protection. A 2023 FP Analytics interview with Iskandar Boustany, an economist and budget expert for Obergine Consulting, and Sabine Hatem, chief economist of the Institut des Finances Basil Fuleihan, suggested that NGOs and multilaterals have been stepping in to fill gaps in government programming due to underfunding, especially in the wake of Lebanon’s financial and monetary crises. According to the interviewees, donors have historically administered most of their child-protection funding through Lebanon’s government but now are dispersing funding directly. Another FP Analytics interviewee, Nisrine Yassine, head of program quality for War Child Holland Lebanon, confirmed, “The work is being done by organizations, which has a positive part. It also has a negative part, because the government should be equipped to provide all this. [Nongovernmental and multilateral] organizations are carrying the heavier load.” In effect, while ministries develop policy and issue guidance, NGOs and multilaterals are the main implementers of child-protection services, including to address CSA.
The most relevant government entities to CSA are the Ministries of Education and Higher Education, Justice, Public Health, and Social Affairs. Funding to each agency increased over the monitoring period (2018–2022). However, it is essential to note the significant devaluation of the Lebanese pound since the 2019 financial meltdown, with an inflation rate as high as 154.8 percent in 2020. Year-on-year budget increases for all ministries (except for the Ministry of Public Health in 2020–2022) did not keep up with year-on-year inflation. However MoSA’s budget has generally increased over time as a percentage of Lebanon’s total budget. (See Figure 1.)
Budget Expenditures through CSA-Relevant Ministries
(as a percent of total budget due to inflation)
The central budget’s breakdown of spending by function signals a significant amount of funding directed toward “Social protection,” usually second only to “General public services.” Furthermore, unadjusted spending has increased over time, as has the proportion of the total budget that has been devoted to social protection. However, an FP Analytics interview with budgetary experts Iskandar Boustany and Sabine Hatem suggested that the large allocation in 2022 to “Social protection” was adjusted upward due to “social allocations” to augment the salaries of public servants that had not been adjusted for currency devaluation.
Total Budget Expenditure for Social Protection
Within the “Social protection” budget, two line-items are potentially related to CSA: (1) the “Higher Council for Childhood;” and (2) “Juveniles at-risk programming.” MoSA directly supervises the Higher Council for Childhood, a governmental organization tasked with integrating efforts for child protection between the public and nongovernmental sectors. The council is especially important, as Lebanon reformed its child protection model in 2015 to implement a dual-pathway approach. This framework bifurcated child protection between (1) the judicial pathway for children in imminent danger, which involves coordinating government social workers, juvenile courts, and police; and (2) the non-judicial pathway for children at potential risk, with the work of governmental, multilateral, and nongovernmental entities coordinated by the council. The expenditure of the Higher Council for Childhood, which is funded under the budget category “Family and children,” has not kept up with inflation, and expenditures notably fell in 2019. (See Figure 3.) “Social protection not elsewhere classified (n.e.c.)” was highlighted by interviewee Iskandar Boustany as a budget category capturing some child-protection spending. A deep dive into budget documents revealed funding under “Social protection n.e.c.” for NGOs such as Caritas, which addresses many social needs, including CSA. Other NGOs, such as Himaya, an NGO focusing on child protection, including prevention and response to CSA, indicate funding from MoSA, but this is not captured in public budgets. However, the “Social protection n.e.c.” category also documents expenditure for “Juveniles at-risk programming,” which could potentially be related to services for at-risk children in the non-judicial pathway. This funding likewise fell in 2019 and similarly did not increase in line with inflation.
Social Protection Budget
In light of the prevalence of CSA and the deep involvement of multilateral and nongovernmental organizations in the protection space in Lebanon, efforts to prevent and respond to CSA would benefit from a unifying national strategy with a clear resourcing plan. In 2018, UNICEF indicated that the Ministries of Education and Higher Education and Public Health were working on a road map to manage CSA. Likewise, Iskandar Boustany and Sabine Hatem indicated that the MoSA was working on a referral pathway in 2023 to integrate child-protection case management, including CSA cases, across ministries. However, as of September 2023, neither initiative has been publicly announced or implemented.
“What the government currently covers in terms of child protection is really minimal compared to the needs and is heavily complemented by what is being done by other international agencies or international NGOs.”
Sabine Hatem, chief economist of the Institut des Finances Basil Fuleihan
Research suggests that due to long-term low rates of social-protection spending, exacerbated by economic and political crises, the Lebanese government has been notably under-prioritizing efforts to combat CSA. In turn, this gap has been filled, in part, by multilateral organizations and NGOs. As interviewee Sabine Hatem noted, “What the government currently covers in terms of child protection is really minimal compared to the needs and is heavily complemented by what is being done by other international agencies or international NGOs.”
According to a 2020 International Labor Organization analysis, Lebanon’s public social-protection expenditure on children (excluding health) of 0.80 percent of GDP is higher than the regional average of 0.10 percent of GDP. Due to further data limitations, trends and deeper analysis into Lebanese government allocations to address CSA specifically remain unclear. As Sabine Hatem recommended, the Lebanese government could move toward program-based budgeting, which is linked to policy objectives. That would help donors, practitioners, and researchers better track and measure allocations and help inform policy recommendations.