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Lifting the Voices of Libyan Women

Lifting the Voices of Libyan Women

Monday, 8 March, 2021 - 10:45
Stephanie Williams
Former acting UN Libya envoy

As the world pauses today to mark International Women’s Day, and twenty-one years following the adoption of the first UN resolution on Women, Peace and Security -- UNSCR 1325 -- we should take stock of all that needs to be done to strengthen the inclusion of women in peace processes. That was certainly a key takeaway for me during my tenure in Libya with both the US government and the United Nations. Libya is a country in which women too often bear the direct brunt of armed conflict but struggle to obtain seats at the negotiating table.

The value of including women in conflict prevention and resolution efforts, not to mention peace-building, has become a sine qua non in international mediation but translating that into reality on the ground in countries beset by conflict where the voices of women have been marginalized in favor of those who carry the guns, requires persistent advocacy.

A case in point was the building of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). In its initial structure, seats were to be provided equally to Libya’s two legislative bodies – the House of Representatives and the High State Council – apportioned on the basis of the country’s thirteen electoral districts. The two bodies held elections amongst their members to assign the seats for the LPDF, elections which resulted in one woman being selected along with twenty-five men: hardly representative. The selection of the one woman was then challenged by the men in her district, with the United Nations being the only ones to defend her rights. At that point, we made a decision to build a dedicated women’s bloc.

The seventeen women in the LPDF together and individually evolved into the single most impressive bloc in the political dialogue, advocating forcefully for the fair representation and participation of women in senior decision-making posts in the government. They successfully petitioned for the inclusion in the LPDF roadmap of language guaranteeing that not less than thirty percent of senior appointments in any interim government go to women. That means, at minimum, appointing women as Ministers or Deputy Ministers, with of course the expectation that the Prime Minister-designate would appoint a female Deputy Prime Minister and that women be given leadership of sovereign ministries, such as Foreign Affairs, Interior, Finance and Defense.

We went a step further in seeking to bind the candidates – two of whom were themselves women -- for the interim executive positions to the 30 percent rule by requiring them to sign pledges which were displayed to the public and the LPDF members during the candidate presentations which were aired live on Libyan television. When the gentleman who was selected as the interim prime minister appeared to backslide on this commitment, the LPDF women’s bloc promptly requested a virtual meeting to call him out. He subsequently “clarified” his position. Pressure works.

The LPDF women’s bloc also eloquently lobbied for genuine support to be provided to the Women’s Empowerment Unit attached to the Prime Minister’s office. This unit had suffered from woeful neglect, lack of funding and even the provision of permanent office space. The LPDF women further distinguished themselves by serving as bridge builders, human rights advocates, and civil society activists. They raised their voices on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Libyans who remain displaced from their homes as a result of the grinding conflict.

The solidarity of the LPDF women’s bloc amply illustrates the difference that women can make in ensuring the durability of peace processes. They and the youth are the best antidotes to “the dinosaur” status quo political class and those who view public service as a business, as another means to secure private “ghaneema” (spoils). With national elections scheduled for December 24, 2021, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of Libya’s independence, women and youth should be encouraged and supported to put themselves forward as candidates.

The service rendered to Libya by the women in the LPDF is all the more remarkable given that a number of them were the subject of hate-filled campaigns on social media and the grim reality that women have suffered disproportionately as the victims of political violence in Libya. Sadly, during the LPDF meeting in Tunis in November, Hanan Al-Barassi, a prominent female attorney in Benghazi, was gunned down on the street in broad daylight; the fate of Parliament member Siham Serghewa, brutally abducted from her home in Benghazi by a pro-LNA armed group in July 2019, remains unknown.

The advances made by the LPDF women’s bloc notwithstanding, a lot of work remains to be done to ensure women’s full inclusion in other aspects of peace-building and consolidation. Women’s voices need to be heard in discussions regarding economic and financial reform and the long overdue restructuring of Libya’s economy. Women comprise at least half of the population but are barely reflected in the work force, including the struggling private sector. As efforts to consolidate the October 23 ceasefire progress, women, civil society and human rights activists need to be at the table for discussions on security sector reform and the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of armed groups.

There’s no dispute: women are change agents. Women are making history all over the world with their increasing participation in politics and senior decision-making, including in my own country, which just witnessed the election of Kamala Harris, the first female American Vice President. Libya should be no exception.

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