Today, Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) celebrates International Women’s Day by paying tribute to the Libyan women who gave their life to see a free and just Libya. In a country where the space for civil society is shrinking dramatically for everyone, women defenders find themselves operating in a particularly hostile environment and are oftentimes pushed out of public life entirely.
“Women are vital to secure sustainable peace and justice in Libya. They need to be represented at every stage and in all areas of the overall state building process, where their rights are respected and safeguarded by all actors”, said Marwa Mohamed, LFJL’s Head of Advocacy and Outreach. “LFJL remains committed to supporting the efforts of Libyan women and continues to advocate for women to be included in all areas of Libya’s future.”
Since 2014, attacks carried out by armed groups against human rights defenders, including journalists and activists, have increased at an alarming rate. Women, in particular, have been targets of gender-based violence and threats, including physical assault, abductions, sexual violence, and smear campaigns.
The deterioration in freedoms became dramatically apparent when human rights activist and lawyer Salwa Bugaighis was killed in Benghazi in 2014. That day can be defined as a turning point for Libyan women, who then quickly reconsidered their engagement in the public space. Some of the same women who actively took to the streets in 2011 and were active members of civil society in the years following the uprising, seeking to play a crucial part in Libya’s future, quickly retracted. The lack of any real investigations by the Libyan authorities sent the message that impunity would prevail, creating an environment that allowed for the further targeting of women, such as the cases of Derna Congress Member Fariha Al-Berkawi, killed on 17 July 2014, and human rights activist Entisar El Hassari, killed in February 2014.
More recently, the abduction of Libyan lawmaker Seham Sergewa from her home in Benghazi in July 2019 demonstrates how impunity emboldens armed groups and militias to continue to silence women and limit their participation in public life. To this day, the whereabouts of Ms Sergewa remain unknown. This is sadly only the latest example of repeated attacks on women in Libya.
Many other women have endured smear campaigns and reputational damage, online and offline harassment and bullying, physical violence and threats of assault, all of which have sadly forced women to withdraw from participating in public life. Since the launch of the offensive on the capital in April 2019, the condition for women in Libya has become even more critical, and limitations on their basic freedoms including the freedom of movement has increased significantly.
Lack of accountability and the inability or unwillingness of Libyan institutions to act in this regard have left women vulnerable and has forced them out of public life. This has had a resonating effect on all areas in Libya, including the political process, where women are overwhelmingly underrepresented.
“Remembering these women today allows us to celebrate their legacies, but to also reiterate that we will not stop pursuing justice for Libya despite intimidation, fear and the effects of war and widespread violence”, concluded Mohamed.
If you are interested in understanding more about the specific impact of conflict on women, and why women are vital to peace and state-building processes, listen to On Women, Libya Matters’ episode featuring Laila Alodaat, Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.