The movement for women’s rights in Libya has deep roots that date back a century. Libyan women acquired the right to vote in 1920, and women’s rights groups in Libya date back to the 1950s. In spite of this, the Gaddafi regime instituted a series of repressions that targeted women across its four-decade rule, rolling back civil rights and exacerbating their de facto exclusion from the Libyan political and economic spheres. Since a popular uprising violently deposed strongman leader, Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011, instability in the North African nation has left its women in a state of political flux.
Women’s Rights in an Unstable Nation
In Libya’s post-Gaddafi era, attempts at consolidating rival administrations into a unified national government have systematically failed. Since 2014, two governments, the General National Congress based in Tripoli and the House of Representatives (or Tobruk Government) based in Tobruk, have fought for control of Libya against one another and other regional factions. Because of consistent fighting, the situation in Libya has at times resembled anarchy.
International relations think tank, Freedom House, in its 2020 annual Freedom in the World Report, designated Libya as “not free” with a score of 9/100. Its sub-scores in political rights and civil liberties rank at 1/40 and 8/60 respectively. Regarding women, Freedom House summarizes that “Women are not treated equally under the law and face practical restrictions on their ability to participate in the workforce.”
Further, the report states that many of the laws implemented under Libya’s warring governments are based on Sharia (Islamic Law) and personally disadvantage women in bodily autonomy, marital and financial status as well as civil liberties. Domestic violence is not directly criminalized and most instances go unreported. Further, Libyan law imposes penalties for extramarital sex and allow rapists to escape punishment by coercing their victims into marriage. As a general trend, Freedom House notes, “communities that lacked an affiliation with powerful militia were especially marginalized.”
International Organizations Report on Women in Libya
Because of Libya’s rampant factional violence, the Netherlands-based global advocacy organization, Cordaid, reports that violence against women at the hands of militias frequently goes unpunished. Cordaid also notes that restricted freedom of movement, driven by fear of violence, is leading to declines in schooling among women and girls.
The Atlantic Council, another globally-oriented policy think tank, points out that sexual and gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and forced prostitution are common practices in many conflicts. Of the hundreds of thousands of Libyan civilians currently displaced in refugee camps, a large proportion are women and children at risk of militia aggression. And after 2019 the abduction of Representative Seham Serghewa, a rights activist, Atlantic Council cites a larger pattern of violence and disappearances leveled against Libyan women in government.
Present Women’s Rights Work
In the face of continual conflict, networks of advocacy organizations continue to work on behalf of women’s rights in Libya. Some examples are:
- The Libyan Women’s Union, established in 2012, works to support women in and around Tripoli by providing resources for women affected by violence, hosting courses and workshops to facilitate women’s political participation and professional development and spreading awareness for Libyan women in elections.
- The Libya Women’s Forum, since its founding in 2011, runs courses in English language and legal literacy, trains women to communicate more effectively, facilitates joint dialogue sessions between women and men and helps draft laws advancing women’s rights in Libya.
- International organization Jurists Without Chains publishes research advocating on behalf of women’s rights, female candidates, expanded suffrage and active political participation of women in Libya, along with holding workshops on women’s roles in human development.
- Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice supports local women’s advocacy organizations in Libya through technical planning and consultancy, advocacy and network-building. These efforts culminate in the hosting of national conferences containing over 100 local organizations working to advance women’s rights in Libya.
The Future of Gender Equality in Libya
In spite of the advocacy, education, support and other work being completed on behalf of Libyan women, issues associated with gender, including violence, sexual and marital repression and politically motivated violence, are endemic to Libya’s larger structural issues such as its ongoing civil war. Advancing women’s rights in Libya means ending the conflict and returning the country to a baseline of stability.
– Skye Jacobs