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UN arms Libyan women with gun-safety knowledge

For every Libyan citizen, there are two or more guns circulating within the oil-rich North African country’s border, based on a consensus of estimates. 

“Since 2011, everybody carries weapons — even 10-year-old children,” said a Tobruk parliamentarian on the condition of anonymity.

Not only has the flow of arms become a lucrative and flourishing business, it is also the source of a large number of accidents, often within households. The parliamentarian is one of 12 women participating in the first round of a training program designed to increase awareness about firearm danger.

“There was a 10-year-old girl who accidentally killed her mother,” Asma, a woman from Benghazi who is participating in the program, recalled.

The tragedy happened to her neighbor’s family. The handgun was kept under a pillow on the parents’ bed. Asma attended the funeral, and she remembers how the grandmother placed all the blame on the young girl’s shoulders. People openly pointed at the little girl.

This is just one of many tragic incidents experienced by families in Libya, and that’s why she is taking part in this training program.

Despite the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons and ammunition, there is little discussion of how to store and handle weapons safely. Many accidents happen when people clean their weapons. Nana, a participant from southern Libya, told of a man who accidentally shot and killed his sister while he was polishing his loaded handgun. But it is not only within the households that education is necessary, said Nana, who remembers another incident where two police offers were joking around on a street when a bullet went off, hitting one of the men in the leg, which then had to be amputated.

The gun situation has influenced the dynamics of gender in the Libyan communities, where women and girls are disproportionately affected by the violence. That’s why the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS), the Small Arms Survey in Geneva and the UN Institute for Disarmament Research designed the risk-awareness program to focus specifically on women.

In the next step toward implementing the program, the Women Empowerment Section (WES) of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) compiled a list of potential participants based on their involvement in women’s issues or politics. The women were contacted to see if they were interested, and some of those women used their networks to help expand the list. The first group of 12 women began their first of three training sessions Dec. 14-16 in Tunis. When they complete their training in March, WES hopes to schedule workshops for more women.

“The women are eager to be involved. We only provide the tools for them to act,” explained Paul Grimsley, chief of arms and ammunition at UNSMIL. The program also aims to make women aware of their unique influence over household behavior to change attitudes and practices, he said.

There are many reasons why people own guns in Libya. Asma believes self-defense is the most important factor. But for many people, it is also about status, and weapons instill a feeling of power, she said.

“The nature of the demand has changed,” said Nic Jenzen-Jones, director of Armament Research Services Pty. Ltd., an international technical intelligence consultancy. Jenzen-Jones has been focusing on Libya for several years. In the beginning of the conflict, the most favored weapons were primarily semi-automatic rifles and machine guns. Recently, there has been a significant increase in the demand for concealable weapons like handguns, which are often purchased for self-defense and can be easily carried or stored in a car.

As demand has risen, prices have increased, too. In Libya today, a secondhand, European-made, semi-automatic pistol can cost some 5,000-6,000 Libyan dinars ($3,600-$4,300), compared with $600-$900 in the United States, Jenzen-Jones estimated. Ammunition costs more, too. As the conflict has evolved, the arms trade has become increasingly commercialized. Today, weapons are sold almost openly in some places. They are also sold in black markets and via social media, either by individuals or by some armed groups, he said.

The primary cause for the significant number of small arms circulating illicitly in Libya is the plundering of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s large stockpiles of weapons. Weapons from the Gadhafi era are today in the hands of militant groups, terrorists and criminals across Africa and the Middle East, according to UN reports. As the conflict evolved, the domestic arms business and arms trafficking abroad became a lucrative business in the war-torn country. In the beginning of the conflict, many of the arms found in the hands of armed rebel groups were civilian-owned rifles, some of which had been within families for a long time. However, as the conflict escalated, these arms were supplemented by weaponry captured from regime forces and military bases, as well as those supplied by defecting troops. In addition, there was an influx of weapons smuggled from neighboring countries.

The combination of the rise in demand for weapons within Libya and some improvement in protecting stockpiled arms has contributed to a slowdown in the weapons leaving Libya, said Jenzen-Jones. Trafficking reached a peak in 2012, when truckloads of weapons were transported out of the country. Libya became a regional center for illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons in North Africa. While arms from and within Libya continue to proliferate, there are now new sources of weapons flowing into the country.

“We need a strategy to collect small arms and reduce weapons within the households,” said Nana. Yet it is unlikely that people will be convinced to give up their weapons until a basic level of security is restored to Libyan communities. As long as there is no law and order, most Libyans will continue to arm themselves for protection.

Nana and the other women have learned concrete safety steps, including how to store weapons in safe spaces in the household and keeping the ammunition stored separately. These are some of the lessons the women will take back to their Libyan communities.

“The aim is to create a multiplying effect,” said Caitlin Longden, a junior program officer at UNMAS.

“Before the conflict, Libyans didn’t have this culture of arms,” said Selma from Zaoula. Today, Libyans are tired of the conflict and want peace, she said. She is hoping that by taking part in this training, she can contribute to making her community safer. On the global level, she has one message to the international community: Control the arms flow to Libya.

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