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Real progress in Libya depends on women’s empowerment

Libyan women took a very active role throughout the six-month long revolution of 2011: A role which has been well documented and much admired.

They also expected the political change that took place to bring more women’s participation politically, economically and socially. Seven years on, the important issue of women’s empowerment is still on the table, as they make the case for more and better representation in all spheres of political, economic and public life.

Dozens of women’s rights civil society groups have sprung up recently, and the activists leading these groups have been vocal in articulating their demands.

Key to their argument, is that the country’s development cannot be attained as long as the choices and contributions of women – half of society – are restricted and obstructed.

In making its case for the need for women’s empowerment, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) argues thatTargeted actions aimed at empowering women and righting gender inequities in the social and economic sphere, as well as in terms of civil and political rights, must be taken alongside efforts to en-gender the development process.”

Indeed, in order for Libya to fulfil its potential for development for society to prosper as a whole, women must enjoy equal rights to contribute, not just on paper but in practice, too.

Full political representation, including at decision-making and policy levels, is fundamental, as is access to jobs, economic power and financial independence. In reality, however, many obstacles remain.

Historically speaking, Libya gained independence as a modern state in 1951 but was extremely poor and relied on international aid; education levels at the time were also extremely low for both men and women.

Ten years later, in the early 1960s, Libya discovered huge reserves of oil and started exporting it in commercial quantities. The substantial revenues financed vital infrastructure development – including education and healthcare. In 1964, Libyan women achieved suffrage in political elections under the constitution of the monarchic regime. They were granted increasing equal rights, and discrimination based on gender was prohibited.

After Gaddafi came to power through a military coup in 1969, he adopted a narrative of liberating women and guaranteeing women’s rights.

Yet despite these public claims, the Gaddafi regime delivered very little in this crucial area, especially that of political representation.

Many also disagreed with the way Gaddafi was handpicking young Libyan women as bodyguards for his international visits, and saw their presence as particularly demeaning for Libyan women – far from reflecting any form of empowerment.

Libyan academic Amal Mahmoud, published a study in 2008 which stated that out of a total of (132) people who held cabinet positions as ministers in various Libyan cabinets, between 1969 and 2006, only three ministers (two percent) had been women.

Such dismal representation reflected a clear contradiction with the official rhetoric of Gaddafi, which supposedly encouraged women to play a significant role in the social, political and economic development of Libyan society.

The most significant progress Libyan women have made in the last two decades has been in the field of education, which is compulsory for both boys and girls up to intermediate level.

The number of of women entering parliament and taking up ministerial positions has improved significantly in the last seven years since the revolution of 2011, compared to the previous era of the Gaddafi regime. In fact, women are now exceeding men in educational achievement, with girls outperforming boys academically, and also in terms of numbers progression to higher education.

This positive trend is not however reflected in women climbing the career ladder. Very few women have been appointed as judges in the judiciary field, with the first appointed female judge in 1991. There have also been few female ambassadors appointed to represent Libya in other countries.

While there is still a lot of room for improvement, the average percentage of women members of the two elected parliaments in 2012 and 2014 has been around 16 percent, and the number of women ministers has also increased in consecutive governments since the removal of the Gaddafi regime (where only two percent of total ministers were female).

Each of the (102) municipal councils, which were elected directly by the people for the first time ever in 2014, were also mandated to elect at least one woman as one of their average five council members.

Despite all these advances – especially in the field of education – social and cultural norms still consider a women’s primary role as in the home. Many highly talented young women in Libya with an excellent education embark on professional careers which are often cut short when they marry.

But today there need not be a clash between setting up a family, and working life.

The openness and freedom that Libyans have been enjoying in the last seven years of transition has allowed many women’s advocacy groups to campaign for greater participation and empowerment for women.

That said, there has also been a significant rise in the spread and influence of ‘Salafi’ religious groups, indoctrinated mainly by scholars in Saudi Arabia, who propagate a very conservative interpretation of Islam when it comes to women’s roles and participation in society.

These groups want to impose a strict segregation regime on males and females in all workplaces and throughout all levels of education. They also oppose the idea of women holding high level positions especially in politics.

It is important to remember however, that these strict and extreme religious beliefs are not shared by the overwhelming Libyan population, who tend to be socially conservative and religious, but at the same time open-minded and moderate rejecting all forms of extremist tendencies.

These Salafi groups will continue to influence society with their ideas as long as Libya remains a fragile state with very weak or absent state institutions, and without a new permanent constitution that can guarantee the rights of every citizen.

The United Nations Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has set up a dedicated women’s empowerment section to promote Libyan women’s political participation, guided by the Mission’s mandate and UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.

It advocates 30 percent representation of Libyan women as a minimum quota in all governmental structures, including in parliament. Such a target has been echoed by many women activists and civil society groups as well.

In order to achieve these targets and a much wider concrete women participation in all aspects of political, economic and social activities, much work still needs to be done especially in changing attitudes and achieving a paradigm shift in the way the role of women in society is viewed.

For women in Libya, as in many other parts of the world, the journey to equal rights in practice and everyday life is not an easy one.

Indeed, their empowerment is not a bonus, or a favour granted by men, but an inherent, essential human right. Societies will never achieve their full potential of development without it.

Libyan women have shown a strong intent and made a forceful and positive start in the last seven years, and they deserve all the support they can get.

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