A Libyan woman carries a national flag in the capital Tripoli on February 25, 2021, during celebrations commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 2011 revolution. (Photo by MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images)
Analysis

Libyan Women and Political Participation: Ten Years Since the Revolution

The Libyan revolution in 2011 and the subsequent violence that ensued expanded the vulnerabilities faced by women and girls during and post-conflict. Women’s insecurity in Libya represents one of the main factors that challenge gender equality and reinforce status quo, hindering the reconciliation and peace process. Women groups and civil society activists that led the revolution on February 17 in 2011 have been constantly threatened—if not murdered in broad daylight—in an attempt to shun their voices and avert their efforts towards peaceful activism. 

Ever since the revolution, Libyan women have led changes on the local and national levels. A majority of civil society organizations in Libya are led by women, and to this day they play an important part in maintaining social cohesion in a deeply-fragmented society. Libya’s lack of functional institutions meant that civil society organizations were necessary in maintaining structure during the turmoil that followed the downfall of the Gaddafi regime. However, these women-led efforts were not reflected in any semblance of inclusion in national reconciliation nor their political participation. Women in Libya have faced systemic violence from governmental bodies and as a result, continue finding themselves second-class citizens. Additionally, ongoing economic hardship has affected and exacerbated pre-existing gender inequalities.

In the face of these challenges, a group of 38 women voiced their concerns in Geneva, intending to be heard by the international community and the media, declaring it unacceptable for Libyan women to be excluded as stakeholders who bear the most to lose in the ongoing conflict. The politically-diverse group underscored its commitment to enabling women everywhere as peacemakers, rather than victims of conflict and that “one day the rest of Libyan society may follow their lead and rally behind peace.”

This 2015 initiative by UN Women and UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs produced a Minimum Women’s Peace Agenda for Libya. It focused on protecting “women’s right to 30 percent representation in government and elected bodies, enshrining gender equality in the new constitution and reforming laws to protect women’s right to live free from violence.” The group also reached a consensus on ways to secure peace and protect women’s rights “during both peace and transitional processes.”

However, the Women, Peace, Security (WPS) agenda in Libya has lacked implementing mechanisms and therefore has not been as effective as it has been in countries that have experienced similar post-conflict conditions, such as Liberia. 

Because of these conditions, several female activists and feminists have chosen to either flee the country or refrain from further participation in public service in fear of their safety. These safety concerns profoundly affect aspects of inclusivity in the Libyan political process and raise grave implications for the future of women’s rights in the country. 

A review of women’s involvement in peace processes found limited evidence of their meaningful involvement over the past decade. Despite the inclusion of women’s organizations in UN-led processes, there was no indication that they were invited to play a leading role or that their concerns were prioritized. The international community has shied away from pushing for gender equality in the face of local resistance,” such as was apparent in local mediation and reconciliation initiatives—“since male elders in Libya would not participate in meetings with women, separate meetings for women have been set up.” These barriers exist despite one of the attendants of these meetings reporting that “women tend to look at the broader picture of the conflict and raise concerns such as family-level security.” Women in Libya are also “reported to be more open in reconciliation efforts, willing to work across tribal affiliations,” such as in Sabha, where an NGO worker reported that women had built relations across tribal dividing lines.

Nonetheless, it is fair to say that women in Libya continue their struggle to this day with insufficient representation, even at the latest Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). Women are often tokenized and their visions are seldom respected. And in keeping with past patterns, social media ridiculed women’s participation in the forum and their presentations on Libya’s future. Problems surrounding female participation is multi-faceted. Socially, women are still viewed as weak, futile and therefore belong in the domestic life or at the very most, permitted to work in a limited number of capacities. Economically, women face discrimination in the hiring process and workplace. Female participation in the political process also continues encountering considerable obstacles, despite the statistically significant role they play in reconciliation as per the UN Women and UNDP reports. These are all complicated by the cultural and traditional norms that are often used an excuse to carry out sexist practices. 

Women’s political representation and rights is additionally in a vulnerable state due to the lack of strong legal frameworks. The current environment fails to address crimes such as violence against women and sexual and gender-based violence. In Libya, both women and men believe that “the framework to protect women’s rights should be strengthened.” Until 2015, the interim constitution and the new draft constitution did not explicitly address women’s rights. Thereby, women’s political rights remain under the same threats that they faced before the quota system was introduced. Lack of strides towards women’s political rights, lack of representation in new political bodies, lack of implementing mechanisms that guarantee women’s representation all indicate this. The quota system still being pushed under the LPDF is being done so in fear of women not gaining any place at the table at all. 

Recommendations have been made by the UNDP report with the aim to strengthen the Women Peace and Security agenda in Libya. Firstly, a priority is placed on supporting female politicians and national authorities, thereby enabling and promoting women’s meaningful participation . The report views that work must be completed through information campaigns that highlight the importance of how quotas protect women’s rights, in addition to campaigns that shed light on women’s roles in local councils. Secondly, there is also the importance of strengthening the justice system on the basis of gender-specific justice, through the development of a national action plan for Women Peace and Security in Libya. 

Among these recommendations is also a new constitution that guarantees equality before the law as part of a wider effort to repeal outdated laws, policies, and criminalize violence against women. Lastly, the report highlights the importance of strengthening public safety for for women in offices, hospitals, and other areas where they struggle to gain safe access to services. 

These recommendations provide a realistic look at what could be achieved in the short to medium term with regard to Women Peace and Security agenda in Libya. However, longer term struggles will persist for women to achieve an equal and redeemable place in Libya’s political sphere. Women must continue their battle towards equality and to further strengthen the quota system. Lastly, women groups must embrace a more diverse group of activists and researchers that share the same goal: to include women on a multi-faceted level and to ensure their presence and decision-making capabilities as part of Libya’s political future.