A decade of instability has brought Libya and its citizens to our knees. Frequent outbreaks of armed conflict and outright war have led to the loss of lives and permanent injuries, the displacement of thousands, the fragmentation of the social fabric, and economic harms. Libya has been severely affected by the Covid-19 global pandemic, exacerbated by worsening service delivery that has undermined the health system. Women, because of their central role in the family and social life, bear a disproportionate burden of the social, economic and political costs of this prolonged conflict.
One result of the ongoing instability is that gender-specific barriers have become more difficult to address. In particular, women’s participation in decision-making positions in the transitional period from 2011 has become significantly more difficult and dangerous. Women who are active in public life face physical threats including murder, kidnapping, sexual harassment, abuse and banditry; and in both public institutions and private life, they are subjected to verbal threats and other punitive responses for supposedly violating social norms. Women persistently bear the burden of holding the family’s honour, which limits their individual freedom to act: they are understood as representing a whole family or clan. While it may be difficult to explain crimes against women in public office as politically motivated, their presence and actions in the decision-making sphere are very obviously threatened because of prevailing patriarchal cultural practices.
There is another side to the story, though: in the past decade of the Libyan conflict, women and girls have steadily insisted on their right to be involved in the civic sphere, and there is now an unprecedented and intergenerational level of female-led involvement in peace building and social justice work through non-profit organisations and charities. This is a positive gain, because women are much more active in civil society than men, and almost all civil society organisations in Libya are run by women. The downside, however, is that all this work has not translated into increased official participation in formal structures, especially at decision-making levels. This is unacceptable, especially given the capacities women are demonstrating in the civil society space.
Organised women have achieved an extraordinary amount. They have claimed new space for political and other types of participation, and mobilised against gender-based violence and discrimination, running campaigns, events, workshops, and during Covid-19, keeping up their engagement through virtual meetings. In many instances, they have united to provide innovative solutions in peacebuilding activities, including through occupying virtual spaces and media. Collectively, women have expressed a strong commitment to fostering a culture of peace, reconciliation and peaceful co-existence in Libya.
At the local level women act as peace builders by continuing to facilitate community-based reconciliation processes through community dialogue. In numerous ways, they work to re-establish social cohesion and inclusion. They are also setting the foundations for women to claim their full rights. Their role extends from the local level to a national one where women continue to advocate for meaningful inclusion in all activities to promote the country’s political transition. Specifically, they support a peaceful democratic transition by addressing the systematic exclusion of Libyan women from the UN-led peace talks. Activists keep pushing the international community to actively engage women, to recognise their right to play a prominent and proactive role in peacebuilding.
Repeated calls and advocacy efforts over the last three years finally resulted in the inclusion of seventeen Libyan women (out of a total of 75 delegates) in the UN-led peace talks, known as the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in 2020, where they played an integral role. With diverse backgrounds and interests, including civil society activists, members of the House of Representative and House of State Council, Academics and Lawyers, the seventeen representatives were from East, West and South Libya. Although Tripoli is the most populated region in the country, with almost 2 million people, this area had relatively few female representatives in comparison to Barqa. This inequality in representation resulted in difficulties in forming coalition and lobby groups.
A concrete gain in terms of the LPDF roadmap is that the interim executive has to commit to 30% participation of women in government. In order to ensure that this 30% representation is actually realised, on the 15th of November, women at the LPDF issued a statement titled “A Statement of the Libyan women participating in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum.”
Despite this effort, and the modesty of a quota of only 30%, only 5 women have so far been appointed as ministers within the interim government.
Although there was encouragement and support for women during the dialogue sessions, and significant male support for the 30% quota for women’s representation in the new executive, within the Presidential Council, male LPDF members insisted that if a woman was to represent a region, a counterpart male should also be appointed in the same position. This position was an unwelcome surprise, and clearly demonstrates the lack of trust in women’s abilities and capabilities as decision-makers and leaders. This tells us that little has changed since 2013, when survey data showed that “the intensity of support varies between genders with significantly more women saying they would strongly support the involvement of women as political candidates,(43%) while only a quarter of men would strongly support women becoming involved in politics as candidates.”
Women were also disappointed to realise that male leaders were willing to ignore the LPDF roadmap: when the new executive was first announced, no women had been appointed in any ministerial positions. It took an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Dabiba to enforce the roadmap agreement, after which a new record in Libya was celebrated when five women were appointed to lead ministries. While an improvement on the zero percentage the government had seemed willing to opt for, this still only amounts to a total representation of 15%.
Those appointed are:
1- Najla Mangouch (Ministry of Foreign Affairs);
2- Halima Ibrahim Abderrahmane (Ministry of Justice);
3- Wafaa Abou Bakr Muhammad Al-Kilani (Ministry of Social Affairs);
4- Mabrouka Tuffi Othman Aoki (Ministry of Culture);
5- Houria Khalifa Miloud al-Turman (Minister of Women’s Affairs)
By insisting on their right to attend the LPDF, women successfully influenced the Forum to address core issues such as human rights, transitional justice and reconciliation. They also formed a coalition block which campaigned for a transparent nomination of political candidates to the government, and Libyan ownership of the process. In continued efforts to ensure their demands were considered, three female delegates further briefed the Security Council on 18th November 2021. They also issued an official letter to UNSC that urged advancement on four issues:
1- Enforce the ceasefire and the roadmap.
2- Ensure the implementation of transitional justice.
3- Support decentralization
4- Prioritize the full, equal and meaningful participation and leadership of women
Throughout the three Forums meetings, once in Tunisia and twice in Switzerland, it was mostly women who showed initiative, commitment, and determination to propose solutions. After a deadlock within the LPDF led to a failure to reach consensuses on the constitutional base for elections, the female delegates issued a statement on the 27th of May 2021 calling on all delegates to respect the roadmap, ensure parliamentary and presidential elections take place on December 24th as planned, and not engage in activities that might sabotage the elections. Whilst the elections are a valuable opportunity to enhance and increase women’s participation and representation, it was disappointing when an electoral law was passed with a far from equal gender quota. Only 32 seats out of 200, 16%, were earmarked for women.
Much more work remains to be done. Electoral legislation and official support for women’s participation in local government needs to be revised, including through reference to neighbouring countries such as Tunisia, where 47% of seats in municipal elections were filled by women in 2018.
Security Council Resolution 1325 strongly affirms the importance of women’s contribution to peace and security, and emphasises the importance of their full participation in all spheres of life, including political, social and legal activism, even within authoritarian regimes. I continue to believe that to achieve a sustainable future, women should be included not only in peace-building processes but also in politics, business and the arts. Libyan women continue to struggle to this day with insufficient representation.
The following measures are needed:
Adopt Resolution 1325 and gain the support of the international community for its urgent implementation on the ground
Calculate, agree and implement quotas to achieve gender equality
Demand women’s equal participation in decision-making processes by mainstreaming a gender perspective into, and promoting gender inclusivity and expertise in every aspect of peace agreements at all stages
Introduce a strong legal framework into the national constitution to diminish gender equality gaps
Every mediator, envoy, and leader of a peace mission should include, in the terms of reference, a required degree of women’s systematic engagement in peace talks. Advancement towards this goal should be regularly reported on in all forums, including the Security Council.