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The fate of Libyan women’s rights hangs in the balance

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The fate of Libyan women’s rights hangs in the balance

Although women were in the forefront of the revolution that overthrew Libyan strongman Muammar Ghaddafi in 2011, their hopes of a more inclusive and equal treatment in the country were dashed with the eruption of civil conflict that followed. Now there is another chance for a fairer country if the elections scheduled for December go ahead and a new, more egalitarian constitution can be drawn, says Amal Bourhrous.

The past few weeks have brought ominous news about women’s rights in Afghanistan. The Taliban went from promising there would be no gender discrimination under their rule to appointing an all-male government, banning women from participating in sports, and excluding girls from secondary school.

While Afghanistan grabs the world’s attention, another country, Libya, is approaching what could be a critical juncture in a struggle for gender equality and women’s rights that has lasted a decade.

The national elections are scheduled for 24 December 2021. If things go well, women will be able to play an equal part in shaping the new Libya they have sacrificed so much for since the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. If they go badly, Libya could become yet another depressing landmark in the retreat of women’s rights around the world.

Libyan women were at the forefront of the 2011 revolution, seeing an opportunity to end the discrimination and exclusion they suffered under the Gaddafi regime, and a chance to build a new society that safeguards women’s rights. They participated in record numbers in the 2012 elections, the first competitive, free national elections organised in Libya since 1952. 

Many women hoped one of the key tasks of the General National Congress elected in 2012—selecting the writers of the new Libyan Constitution – would cement gender equality and women’s rights into the future Libyan state.

However, with the eruption of a new civil war in 2014, these hopes were dashed. As well as once again being exposed, disproportionately, to the horrors and privations of conflict, Libyan women recount how subsequent political processes curtailed their rights and silenced their voices.

Many women’s rights activists report becoming the targets of political violence and hate speech. Despite these setbacks, Libyan women have continued to fight for democracy and rights, sometimes at the cost of their lives.

The international community must take some of the blame. Although gender equality and women’s rights are now globally recognised as essential in peacebuilding, they are nonetheless often sidelined or kicked down the road in the interests of short-term gains. 

Women’s rights activists report that principles of gender equality and women’s rights have often been sacrificed in the name of local ownership of the peace process, and, for the sake of expediency, international actors have bowed to conservative understandings of local culture that many Libyan women do not identify with and even view as oppressive.

Women have too often been cast as ‘spoilers’ when they have insisted on securing rights and participating in the peace process.

Important milestone

Today there is once again cause for hope. A ceasefire, facilitated by the United Nations, was agreed in 2020. There is a roadmap in place from the current transitional arrangements to ‘free, transparent and credible Presidential and Parliamentary elections’ in December 2021.

This was drawn up by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), a body that includes 17 women among its 75 members. Although these 17 were, reportedly, only included at the insistence of UN Women after intense lobbying, for many Libyan women’s activists this marked an important milestone.

The roadmap includes gender equality as a key governing principle. It requires at least 30% women in leadership positions. Gender quotas are not enough, but this was a first step and largely the result of tenacious efforts of female LPDF participants.

The new national unity government, created in March this year, includes five women as Ministers (representing 15% of the Cabinet), including the first female Foreign Minister in Libya’s history.

Most important, though, is what happens next.

Most Libyan women’s rights activists hope that following free and fair elections in December, the new government will start a process to draft a new constitution. The question of a new constitution has been one of the greatest sources of tension among the transitional authorities.

Although a draft constitution exists from 2017, it has never been submitted to a popular referendum. Some argue this must happen before any elections, but there is too little time for a proper democratic referendum process before December. 

Others believe the 2017 draft is illegitimate or unsatisfactory, and want to see drafting start again from scratch. Adoption of the 2017 draft would be a major setback, as it relies entirely on Sharia law and denies women equal citizenship rights.

However, whether the elections will happen at all is now far from certain. Relations within the transitional authorities, and especially between the Tripoli-based administration and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, are fractious. But before elections can take place, the two sides will need to agree on at least a bare-bones constitutional basis regarding the nature of the political system and the distribution of powers. 

This is proving difficult and divisive, all the more so as the House of Representatives and the High State Council have now each approved separate (and conflicting) versions. Meanwhile, the past few weeks have seen the worst violent clashes on the streets of Tripoli since the ceasefire agreement.

If questions about the legal basis for the elections are not resolved soon, there is a good chance the vote will be delayed and the transitional period extended. Once that happens, there is a high risk of the peace process collapsing. A golden opportunity to create a peaceful, united Libya where women can enjoy their full human rights would be lost.

The Libyan authorities and the international community need to do all they can to ensure that elections go ahead on schedule, with the full participation of Libya’s women. Only then can women help shape the next government and the drafting of a new constitution that guarantees the rights for which they have fought so hard.

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Written by Amal Bourhrous

Amal Bourhrous is a researcher on the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Middle East and North Africa Programme. She specialises in the dynamics of identity, citizenship and nation-building; securitisation trends and the political process; and the interactions between geopolitical transformations and international security challenges.

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