Earlier this month, Libyan factions convened in Palermo, Italy, to discuss the country’s future alongside regional and international representatives. The conference brought two of the main rival claimants to leadership in Libya to the table, and extracted pledges from both to support a United Nations peace plan. Insofar as the leading antagonists committed to a “shared objective” of combating migration and terrorism, Western states were satisfied; it was the absence of key powers like Russia and Turkey, however, that led some observers to declare the conference a failure.
More vividly absent in Palermo were the voices of ordinary Libyans. The conference’s focus on forging a deal sufficient to control migration across the Mediterranean and reduce the threat of terrorism is woefully insufficient to tackle the everyday insecurity and injustice confronting Libya’s people, and especially the constituency often targeted for violence yet denied a voice in decision-making: women. The peace talks told a powerful story about violent disarray and the contest for influence amongst rival powers, but it is not the only story to be told about Libya today.
Libyan women played a key role in the 2011 revolution that ousted Muammar Gaddafi. In the heady days after the regime was toppled, the position of women improved as they obtained equal rights before the law and, increasingly, in practice. But since the outbreak of civil war in 2014, no single group has been able to establish legitimate authority across all of Libya, restore protection and basic service provision, or build an inclusive and durable political settlement. A UN-sponsored ceasefire holds in Tripoli, but clashes between militia groups elsewhere impede mobility and access to basic services.
The current political deadlock and the deterioration of security it nourishes has affected all Libyans, but the collective status of women has fallen furthest. Recent research by Cordaid, Human Security Collective, and eight Libyan civil society organizations—the findings of which will be published in January—on the lived experience and perspectives of Libyan civilians, especially women, reveals a sharp disconnect between the stabilization agenda discussed in Palermo and the everyday security and justice needs of Libyan people. The experiences related in the course of the research reveal how circumstances in the country have had a particularly deleterious effect on women.
Women’s experiences have been largely shaped by the collapse of the Libyan state and the disappearance of the security, basic services, and infrastructure it once provided. The years of armed conflict and institutional decay have had painful effects on services like health care, which struggle to maintain previous standards. According to a female nurse in a city hospital: “Airports are closed, militia roadblocks are everywhere. We’ve sent many letters to the competent authorities asking them to support the hospital, especially the nephrology service, in order to reduce the suffering of the patients, but in vain…Their suffering continues, and some patients died.”
The profusion of weapons since the ouster of Gaddafi has unleashed a cascade of violence. Myriad armed groups shift their affiliations and grow large enough to enforce local order and operate their own prison sites. These are often most visible in the operation of checkpoints and roadblocks that deter mobility, hinder access to hospitals and schools, and even seal off certain neighborhoods. In an experience with a militia group, one woman described: “They handcuffed us, put us in their car and took us to a farm, where their militia was based, an old house full of dirty and dusty rooms…There were 16 other people from Ezzaouia who were arrested at the same time and for the same reason. They put all of us in the same room, and every time they would take someone to torture him, beat and interrogate him whether we had relations with some figures of the city of Ezzaouia…As soon as they abducted us, they took away our phones and we were not allowed to call our relatives.”
There are also specific gendered risks of insecurity and injustice. Pushed aside during the clamor for power and resources in the post-revolutionary vacuum, women have seen their rights rolled back after years of progress. For example, the legal system codifies gendered injustice through articles of the penal code that protect husbands and fathers who assault their wives and daughters, so long as they do not cause hospitalization. The lack of legal protections or accountability for violent acts, coupled with the availability of arms, further exacerbates the precarious situation for women.
Rigid conservative mores and war-related insecurity also conspire to limit freedom of movement for women in the public realm. Families fearing for the safety of female relatives feel bound to abide by traditional and religious injunctions against women traveling without a male guardian (mahram). This has implications for women in general, especially for women without male family members, and has forced many younger women to drop out of school. As one woman related, “[W]e are not allowed to do certain things sometimes because they are restricted to men only, and since we lost our brother, we’ve been facing a lot of difficulties lately especially in relation to transportation. We are university students so we need someone to drive us there and back home like all the other female students…Sometimes, we get harassed, but we try to put up with this and ignore such negative behaviors from some drivers for the sake of learning…”
Amid their country’s ongoing chaos, Libyan women have found ways to tackle these everyday challenges. They facilitate many of the informal processes for peace and reconciliation, even in the most remote areas of the country. They mobilize for displaced families and contribute to charities. Indeed, it is to discover and build on such reserves of solidarity and resilience that the voices of Libyans, especially women, must be heard at the negotiating table in platforms like Palermo.
In the past decades, several studies have shown that the lived experience of conflict is profoundly gendered, and that the involvement of women in peace processes, conflict resolution, and prevention is crucial in order to achieve sustainable peace and development. However, despite the many international commitments towards a more inclusive approach to peace and security, women’s voices are still routinely ignored. Palermo was no exception, as no space was made for Libyan women to contribute their input, perspectives, and stories to decision-making.
The stories shared by Libyan women point to some of the practical measures that should be at the center of an agenda for peace talks—a reinforced embargo on arms exports, for example, to take firearms out of circulation, or security sector reform that unites armed groups under civilian control and demobilizes combatants. Prioritization of investments that improve infrastructure and secure roads to facilitate mobility are also essential. It is also clear that Libya needs budgeted investment in sexual- and gender-based violence prevention, and legislative change to reduce impunity for crimes against women.
Perhaps most importantly, Libya’s parties and influential international stakeholders like Italy and other EU states must ensure that platforms like Palermo include civil society, especially women, not simply as observers but as decision-makers. It will be impossible to build a legitimate and durable peace in Libya without addressing the demands for everyday security and justice illustrated by their stories. In the words of one Libyan woman, “peace and security is not just about stopping bullets, but rather an inclusive society in which both men and women have the same opportunities and voice.”