Libyan women forge agenda for peace


Karima*, a prominent Libyan politician, has tolerated threats against her life, an attempted kidnapping and the assassination of her friend and colleague in the Libyan legislature. Her patience, ran out however when a stranger attacked her 13-year-old niece after school, bound her arms from behind and pushed her face down a pile of dirt on the ground while ranting about Karima’s family.

A group of Libyan women at the UN’s Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, presented their agenda for peace to the international community on 10 November 2015. Photo: UN Women/Emad Karim
A group of Libyan women at the UN’s Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, presented their agenda for peace to the international community on 10 November 2015. Photo: UN Women/Emad Karim

Karima is only one of a growing number of Arab women activists whose contribution to politics and peacebuilding has become life-threatening due to armed conflicts and rising radicalism. The space available for women in conflict areas to defend the fragile wins they had achieved in the past is rapidly dwindling.

From 7-10 November, UN Women together with the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and the Switzerland Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported a diverse group of 38 Libyan women representing political opponents and civil society actors in coming together and drafting a Minimum Women’s Peace Agenda for Libya. It focuses on protecting women’s right to 30 per cent 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. They successfully reached consensus on how to secure peace and protect women’s rights during both peace and transitional processes.

In Libya, the conflict has made it harder for women to seek the protection of the police because of the precarious law and order conditions in this post-conflict country. In addition, the resulting economic hardship has affected women more severely due to pre-existing inequalities. Several female activists and feminists, like Karima, have chosen to either flee the country or refrain from further participation in public service out of fear for their safety. This jeopardizes the inclusiveness of the political process in Libya and raises concerns about the future of women’s rights in Libya. 

Karima is currently taking refuge in a neighbouring Arab country, only contributing to politics through social media after once being elected to the legislature. She won’t even allow her real name to be published for fear of retaliation against her family, who still resides in Libya.

“Instead of defending our right as women to participate in politics and to have a role and an opinion, we are afraid now,” Karima said.

Their fear is justified. In recent months, some of the most prominent Libyan women activists were brutally assassinated. A journalist, Naseeb Kerfana, was slain in May of 2014. A month later, a politician who co-founded the transitional body that governed Libya after the 2011 uprising and grantee of UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality, Salwa Bugaighis, was shot to death in her residence. In July, Fariha al-Barkawy, one of only 33 Congresswomen elected in 2012, was shot to death publicly in broad day light. Last February, a civil society activist, Intisar al-Hassairy, was found murdered in the trunk of her own car.

But against these odds, Libyan women are still fighting for their right to a voice in the shaping of the future of their country.

On 10 November, this courageous group of women presented their Agenda to the international community and the media at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland.

“It is not acceptable for Libyan women to be excluded and for their roles to be marginalized and their wins to be ripped away even when they are the partners who bear the most damage in the ongoing conflict,” said the statement read by one of the participants at the launching press conference in Geneva. “Today, we assert the right of women everywhere in weaving their future, and [stress] women’s ability to turn from conflict victims to peacemakers.” 

Their ability to overcome political differences and find common ground for consensus inspires hope that one day the rest of Libyan society may follow their lead and rally behind peace. 

*Name changed to protect her identity.