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Women's Rights Held Hostage in Libya

By Sarah Zeines - The Geneva Observer

May 13, 2021


This is a slightly edited version of ouf our May 13, 2021 edition of SUSTAINED - THE SDGs DECODED. To receive SUSTAINED directly in your inbox, register here


Today in SUSTAINED, The SDGs Decoded, we focus on gender equality—UN Sustainable Development Goal 5—and how women’s rights are being used as a political football in Libya, where the country’s first female foreign minister Najla El-Mangoush is under pressure to leave after only seven weeks into the job.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Najla Mangoush, Tripoli, Libya 17 March 2021

And it’s probably not the end of it, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Hajer Sharief tells The Geneva Observer. Sharief has been vocal in denouncing her country’s deeply ingrained culture of excluding women from politics, and for SUSTAINED, she analyses the future of SDG 5 in her homeland.

“Libya is a Far Cry From Gender Equality”

Libya’s female foreign minister is being pressured to quit, just weeks into the job, after calling for Turkish troops and mercenaries to leave the country.

This is just one symptom of a disease which angers Libyan peace activist Hajer Sharief. Despite recent efforts to include women in higher ranks of the political process, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize nominee condemns her country’s historic failure to address gender inequality.

Lawyer and human rights activist Najla El-Mangoush has only been foreign minister for seven weeks, but she might be on the verge of losing her title. She is one of very few women to occupy a high rank in Libya’s political establishment—and she didn’t get there without a fight. The country’s interim prime minister, Abdelhamid Dbeibah, only appointed her after coming under increasing pressure to respect a promise to give 30% of the nation’s ministerial positions to women. Currently, the Ministries of Justice, Social Affairs, Culture and Women’s Affairs are also led by women, giving them a mere 15% of the government's powers.

Which prompts the question: where do women fit into Libya’s political space? Hajer Sharief has the answer.

Hajer Sharief is a nominee for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

Rewind to the 2011 Libyan Civil War. Hajer experiences her first political education at 19, as a medical student. While volunteering at a hospital in the midst of national chaos, she is overwhelmed with a feeling of injustice as, powerless to help, she witnesses the death of an old man. This tragic moment becomes Hajer Sharief’s epiphany: she switches from med to law school and decides to join the struggle for peaceful political transitions in conflict-ridden countries.

Today, Sharief’s organisation ‘Together We Build It’—now associated with ‘Extremely Together’, a Kofi Annan Foundation initiative—has become a major voice for women and young people pushing for political transformation in her country.

Underrepresentation of women

Having participated in previous negotiations at the highest levels, Hajer Sharief was an avid observer of the UN-led Libyan dialogue last February, in Geneva—discussions which included a total of 17 women amongst 75 representatives and resulted in the appointment of the country’s latest (male) political leaders. The Guardian, amongst other media outlets, emphasised the exceptional nature of the female presence in the delegation. This, however, is a point of view that Sharief does not share: “Women only represented 22% of the delegation, which is clearly not enough to ensure gender equality and fair representation. It is also less than the 30% required by UN policy. Libyan women’s organisations do not perceive this as progressive. The issue of female exclusion from peace processes remains a major problem.”

Sharief argues that the UN needs to respect its own policy, however sensitive the political situation in question. “When it comes to ensuring gender equality and fair representation, the UN should lead by example. If member states are not asked to follow this standard, then the problem will persist. Libyan women’s groups, including Together We Build It, have been calling for at least 30% female representation in all political decision-making processes. As such, we wish that the UN mission to Libya had listened to the demands of Libyan women and set a precedent for Libyan women’s political participation. The negotiations in January could have been a great opportunity to set a high bar for others to follow.”

Hajer Sharief has been very vocal about Women's Rights in her homeland Libya.

SDG 5 on the Libyan agenda

SDG 5, Gender Equality, has been the driver of Hajer Sharief’s activism from the beginning. On its website, the SDG Knowledge Hub describes Goal 5 as being an “enabler and accelerator for all of the other SDGs”. In other words, were Women’s Rights to be recognised fully across the globe, every goal on the UN’s 2030 agenda would come closer to fulfilment. “SDG 5 is intersectional,” emphasises Sharief. “It is crucial to the implementation of all of the other SDGs. I would argue that it is the most important one of all.”

Though there has been notable political progress in recent years when it comes SDG 5 in Libya, it is not nearly enough in the eyes of its advocates. As we write these lines, Abd Alhamid Aldabaiba, the recently appointed prime minister, faces a major backlash for initially refusing to include women in his cabinet. “I know that some people believe [the] call for gender equality in peace and security [is] a ‘luxury demand’,” says Sharief. “I have personally heard this before when I request that women and young people must be fairly represented and included in political and peace processes. People forget that inclusion is a right. This is why it is essential that even high-level officials, at the UN or elsewhere, must ensure that SDG 5 is being prioritised.”

In a strategy to include women in the political processes, Hajer Sharief has focused her efforts on local and national politics. “We work to support women elected at the municipal level. We support their work, provide them with training or technical expertise, raising their profile. We did the same for the constitutional assembly elections and for the local councils. When there were public elections going on, a major part of my organisation’s work was to advocate our cause to Libyan decision-makers, to make sure that the law governing the elections would include a quota for women. Now that the political process in Libya is driven to a large extent by dialogues convened by the UN and external actors, part of our work is to lobby these actors to ensure that they understand and recognise the role Libyan women have to play in peace-building—and ultimately, to ensure that Libyan women are part of the political and peace processes regardless of where, when and how they take place.”

No democracy yet

Despite the international community’s most recent efforts, the question of democracy in Libya is not even on the table, for now. “Libya has a political system that is not a system. It is an ad hoc process, constructed and driven by events, such as the recent UN-led one. Notably, this is not the first time such a process has taken place, but the second. The last democratic and public elections took place in 2014, and after that nothing happened for six years. This is also why the indicators that are usually used to measure gender issues cannot be applied in Libya: the circumstances are completely different. And they are definitely not democratic.”

Listening to the feeling of dissatisfaction evident in Hajer Sharief’s words, one can’t help but feel pessimistic, and might well ask: is there any hope for women in Libya? To this she responds: “Yes, always. But not because of any recent developments. When it comes to peace and security, it is not about two men shaking hands after years of conflict. Peace-building is a long-term process that must be rooted locally and nationally, regardless of gender and generations.” She concludes: “In my opinion, the key players in such processes must be the Libyan people themselves, and more specifically women and young people.”

The words of the future first woman president of Libya?


The Kofi Annan Foundation Supports Libya’s Women

Corinne Momal-Vanian, the Kofi Annan Foundation’s Executive Director, supports Hajer Sharief’s critical opinion of the recent Libyan discussions. “There remains this belief among many peace negotiators that female representation in delegations is a ‘nice to have’, but that it must sometimes be overlooked in the name of moving forward and reaching an agreement—and I fully understand that when a conflict is destroying thousands of lives and livelihoods, a peace envoy will put a priority on ending the killing. However, what we have seen through the work of the Foundation is that lasting peace and true reconciliation only comes with the inclusion of all actors in the communities, especially women. Let me add that while much progress has been made by the Secretary-General in increasing the numbers of women in its ranks, including in leadership positions, the culture of the UN, especially in the areas of peace and security, remains profoundly masculine. Many women will testify that they have faced hostility and a strong backlash from their staff, peers or supervisors. A disproportionate number of women directors have been subjected to investigations and accusations of mismanagement or abuse of authority. Many are throwing in the towel and leaving. What needs to be fixed is the very culture of the organisation, which has a hard time accepting women in positions of leadership and authority. This is what networks like the International Gender Champions, of which I am a member, want to address.”

Corinne Momal-Vanian

For these reasons, Hajer Sharief’s collaboration with her peers at the Foundation is particularly crucial for the foundation's work: “Inclusivity is at the core of the Extremely Together initiative and reflects the values our founder, the late Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Mr Annan often said that gender equality is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance. The Foundation continues his work to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. So do the young men and women, including Hajer Sharief, who lead our efforts to prevent violent extremism. They have engaged very diverse groups of young people through advocacy, training and civic action, to promote social cohesion in communities where minorities are often overlooked. Our activities promote the participation of a wide range of stakeholders, especially women, as their leadership is key in building bridges between different groups within society, and contributes to positive impact and collective ownership within the communities. In addition to Extremely Together’s focus on inclusion, the Foundation has also commissioned a study on violence against women in politics, which was published last year on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Providing a safe environment is the first condition of equal participation of women in political processes, and the study makes several recommendations to help lift the barriers to women’s access to political spaces and public office.”

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