16 Days: In Libya, the Fight Continues - for Women's Rights

By Matt Pennington

Much has transpired in Libya since I left the country several weeks ago. On October 31, Libya’s de facto government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), appointed an interim prime minister, Abdurrahim el-Keib. Keib, a Libyan-American, will be responsible for leading the country for the next seven months, until elections for a national congress are held.

Two weeks ago, Keib announced the makeup of his interim cabinet. Comprised of 24 ministers, the cabinet includes technocrats, former oil executives, and predictably, members of the revolution’s most powerful regional factions in the west, including Misrata and Zintan. At a press conference in Tripoli, Keib told reporters, “All of Libya is represented” in the cabinet. “It is hard to say that any area is not represented.”

These are inspiring sentiments, but they’re not exactly true. Women make up nearly half of Libya’s population of 6.5 million, but only received only two of the 24 ministerial posts: health and social affairs. In response, a number of women activists are protesting their under-representation in the new government and demanding a more active role in the political and electoral process. And rightfully so. Without a doubt, women played a key public role during the revolution – organizing anti-Gaddafi demonstrations, supplying the front lines with food, water, and medical care, and establishing civil society organizations – and they should be encouraged and expected to do the same in the newly liberated Libya.

For Libya to become a more “inclusive, tolerant, and democratic” society – as President Obama called for in October – the US and other major international actors in the region must do more to encourage Libya to meet its commitments to women’s equality and ensure the full participation of women in the political transition.

Libya’s interim government also has the incredibly challenging, but urgent responsibility of protecting vulnerable civilians (including women and children) from vengeful rebel brigades. As we reported weeks ago, despite NTC rhetoric, thousands of black Libyans, sub-Saharan Africans, and other suspected Gaddafi loyalists remain vulnerable to harassment, arbitrary detention and arrest, and violence by rebel brigades. And for women, these threats include sexual and gender-based attacks. Just last week, the UN Secretary General released a report on Libya echoing our findings and expressing strong concern over the violence and mistreatment of these groups by armed brigades.

Thousands of sub-Saharan Africans, black Libyans, and suspected loyalist civilians are still displaced throughout the country, mostly in makeshift camps or settlements. When I was in Libya, I interviewed several sub-Saharan IDPs living in squalid, unsafe conditions at Sidi Bilal port, near Tripoli. Many had been displaced for months. The group, numbering about 800 at the time, included several pregnant women and dozens of young women, many of whom claimed they had been sexually harassed and assaulted by Libyan gangs at the port.

Conditions at the camp were reprehensible, especially for women. Those I interviewed said they were constantly at risk of sexual harassment and abuse due to the lack of protection and security at the site, as well as inadequate, unsafe shelter, sanitation facilitates, and lighting. I even witnessed a makeshift women’s shower stall under surveillance by a group of Libyan men, who only left the site after my colleague and I demanded to know why they were there. Interviewees said this kind of activity was typical. They also said that life was no safer outside of the camp, where they faced violence and intimidation at rebel checkpoints.

The Libyan government has acknowledged the abuse allegations, including those against sub-Saharans, and has pledged to carry out reforms, but it’s still unclear whether or not the brigades will listen to anyone but their own commanders. Last week, I spoke with an aid worker who told me that most of the migrants at Sidi Bilal left the site in the past few weeks – either because they received travel documents from their embassies and returned home, or because they decided to go elsewhere in search of work or safety. For those returning home, this is a positive development. But those who left in search of protection elsewhere will likely face threats to their physical safety and risk arrest at checkpoints.

All of this is unacceptable in the new Libya. The interim government must immediately address the underlying protection needs of sub-Saharans and other vulnerable minorities. Moreover, given the significant political challenges ahead, Libya’s leaders will need to partner closely with the UN, the US, and other allies to protect and assist vulnerable civilians and ensure their concerns are addressed during the political transition.