Libya must uphold its obligation to protect women

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

November 25[1] is the UN’s annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.[2] One in every three women will experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. 71 percent of human trafficking victims around the world are women and girls, and three out of four women are sexually exploited. The UNGA designated this day to be a call for governments and international and local non-governmental organizations to organize activities to raise social awareness of the magnitude, forms, and seriousness of violence against women worldwide.[3]

Libya is a party to most conventions that constitute the basis of international human rights law,[4] including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW),[5] and it is bound by the UNGA Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.[6]  Yet thus far, its compliance has been largely formal and unsubstantiated by legislation[7] and concrete measures and programs. Libya lacks mechanisms to protect women, which has compounded women’s hardships in the recent period.

Libya’s efforts to protect women subjected to violence have been limited to providing a hotline for complaints,[8] which had already been made available under the former regime. Libya has no security services dedicated to following up on complaints of sexual violence, and there are very few female police officers. [9]

Furthermore, the Libyan authorities have taken no step to offer supplementary services like shelters, with the exception of two women’s shelters – one in the capital and one in Benghazi – supervised by the Ministry of Justice. These shelters house women who have completed prison sentences and are unable to return to their homes. The job of the staff at the shelters is only to monitor the behavior of the women, and they offer no psychological care[10] or other necessary services.

The undersigned organizations are gravely concerned by the growing violence against women in Libya’s civic space and regret the failure of the Libyan authorities to meet their obligations in this regard.[11] We again urge the Libyan authorities to assume their responsibility to protect women from all forms of violence, including by:

  • Issuing legislation and allocating the resources necessary to properly enact these laws.
  • Developing institutions for the protection of women and training their staff.
  • Restoring the hotline to assist women victims of violence and ensure that all methods of assistance are available.
  • Regularly updating data on violence against women and girls.
  • Taking action to protect female migrants from harm and exploitation and ensure they receive adequate assistance, and combatting human trafficking.
  • Raising public awareness and improving social mobilization through media programs and educational seminars with the participation of the ministries of Culture, Social Affairs, Endowments, Health, and Media.
  • Training law enforcement staff and increasing the number of female staff to ensure a proper, healthy engagement with issues of violence against women, particularly domestic violence.


Signatory Organizations

  1. Biladi Foundation for Human Rights, Sabratha
  2. Consulting Center for Human Rights, Tripoli
  3. Bidaya for Human Rights Awareness, Tripoli
  4. Network of Women’s Defenders, Benghazi
  5. Rights Advocates Without Limits, Benghazi
  6. Arban for Civic Orientation, Kufra
  7. Migration Rights Group, Tripoli
  8. al-Bariq for Children’s Rights, Tripoli
  9. Libyan Center for Human Rights, Tripoli
  10. Youth for Tawergha, Tawergha
  11. Libya Center for Rights and Freedoms, Zawiya
  12. al-Nasir for Human Rights, Tripoli
  13. Human Rights Solidarity, Tripoli
  14. Independent Organization for Human Rights, Misrata
  15. Cultural and Social Outreach, Ubari
  16. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Tunis
  17. al-Aman Organization Against Racial Discrimination, Murzuq
  18. International Arab Organization for Women’s Rights, Tripoli
  19. Hope of the South for Peace and Sustainable Development, Murzuq
  20. Muhajir Organization for Illegal Migration and Displaced Persons, Kufra
  21. al-Nasma al-Alila Center for Social Studies and Family Counseling, Tripoli


Background information on violence against women in Libya

Women have participated in public life since Libya’s independence in the 1950s. At this time, Libyan women enjoyed higher and diverse educational opportunities, and proved their abilities and excellence in many fields. Libyan women actively participated in the revolution of February 17, 2011, claiming new space for political participation. Libyan women exercised their right to run for national and local office and vote, as well as their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly; rights they exercised to demonstrate and protest gender-based violence and discrimination.

Although data on violence against women in Libya is not rigorously documented, a 2017 report on public opinion in Libya[12] cited a poll conducted by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems that showed growing violence against women,[13] illustrated by increasing acceptance and justification of domestic violence. However, the poll did not offer accurate statistics about domestic violence against Libyan women and did not address violence against women in public life. The most recent official study of domestic violence in Libya remains the Libyan National Family Health Survey of 2014,[14] conducted by the Statistics and Census Department of the Ministry of Planning, which does not comprehensively cover other forms of violence against women. The survey found that 8.2 percent of women in Libya faced domestic violence, 79 percent of it verbal violence.[15]

Yet it is well known that women in Libya face multiple forms of verbal and physical violence in public life and outside the home. As political turmoil and armed violence has escalated since 2013 and peaceful politics has receded sharply since the spring of 2014, the violence has impacted Libyan women as well. Examples of violence against Libyan women in the public sphere include the assassination of rights activist and lawyer Salwa Bugaighis in her home in Benghazi on June 25, 2014 and the assassination of Fariha Barkawi, a member of parliament for the General National Congress, in Derna on July 17, 2014. Another parliamentarian, Sabah al-Hajj, was beaten in her apartment in Tobruk on February 16, 2016, and a video circulated on social media showing parliamentarian Siham Sergewa being insulted and cursed by an employee at the La Braq Airport. Security concerns are also a major impediment to women’s participation in public life.

Violence against women has increased in recent years with continued political polarization and armed conflict, and the growing influence of militias and criminal gangs. According to a report from the human rights division of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya,[16] at least 18 women and 13 girls were killed and 26 women and 15 girls injured in armed conflicts in Libya in 2017.[17] Reports from al-Tadamon show that 48 women and girls were victims of kidnapping and murder between January 2017 and September 2018.[18] There are also growing numbers of women detained on security grounds for prolonged periods without legal process or trial. A report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that 200 women and 120 children were detained in severely overcrowded facilities lacking adequate ventilation and light and supervised by male prison guards.[19]

In addition, undocumented female migrants suffer from poor treatment and inhumane conditions in prisons operated by the Anti-illegal Migration Agency. These facilities lack basic services, and women detained there are subjected to various forms of exploitation,[20] including sexual exploitation.

[1] The date marks the brutal assassination in 1960 of the Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic under dictator Rafael Trujillo (1930–61). In 1981, activists with Encuentros, a feminist organization in Latin America and the Caribbean, designated November 25 as a day against violence against women and to raise awareness of it. The day was officially recognized by a UN resolution on December 17, 1999.

[2] UN background on the day and UN Resolution 54/134, 54th session, December 17, 1999.

[3] In 2008, the UNITE to End Violence Against Women campaign was launched to raise public awareness and urge the adoption of policies and the allocation of resources to end violence against women and girls worldwide. In October 2017, the EU and UN launched a new multi-year initiative, the Spotlight Initiative, to combat all forms of violence against women and girls and make it a priority for efforts to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

[4] Libya is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

[5] Libya acceded to CEDAW on May 16, 1989 and ratified the CEDAW optional protocol on June 18, 2004.

[6] The UNGA proclaimed the declaration with Resolution 48/104 of December 20, 1993; the Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict was proclaimed with UNGA Resolution 3318 (XXIX) of December 14, 1974.

[7] There is no specific legislation in Libya to combat violence against women, and the status of victims of sexual violence in the 2011 war of liberation has not improved. Cabinet Decree 119/2014 addressing the status of victims of sexual violence met with opposition from the legislature on the grounds that it conflicted with society’s values and religion, which dictated that such incidents not be exposed.

[8] In an article in the London-based al-Hayat, March 19, 2014, covering a UN seminar on Libyan women after the revolution, Madiha al-Naas, a participant in the seminar, said that the hotline had been suspended after the revolution and no alternative was made available.

[9] This deters women from lodging complaints and reports of violence with the police due to the embarrassment of speaking with male officers.

[10] There is an urgent need for services for women victims of violence. According to the preliminary report (p. 39) of the findings of the National Family Health Survey of 2014, conducted by the Ministry of Planning, approximately half of women (48.4 percent) who were subjected to violence were harmed because of it; 74 percent of them suffered from depression as a result and 26 percent were seeking treatment because of it.

[11] Speaking last year on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Asma al-Usta, the minister of state for women’s affairs and social development in the Government of National Accord said, “Violence against women takes many forms: physical violence, which diminishes the importance of women through assault; marginalization, by denying them education or work; or legal violence, whereby laws are passed that harm women, which is the worst form of social violence.” The minister said that her ministry was seeking to submit a bill criminalizing all forms of violence against women, but to date no concrete steps have been taken. See the report from the Libyan News Agency, November 26, 2017.

[12] See “Public Opinion in Libya 2017.”

[13] Ibid, pp. 47–56.

[14] The survey covered 1,100 census districts in 22 regions and 20,899 families from all over Libya. A total of 18,579 families, or 99,060 individuals, participated, for a response rate of 88.9 percent.

[15] Ibid, p. 39; the preliminary report notes that 8.2 percent of women were subjected to some form of domestic violence, and 79 percent of these encountered verbal violence. This indicates that no more than 2 percent of women were subjected to physical/sexual violence. The report continues that women reported that the principal source of harm (verbal) was the husband; more than half of those reporting violence said they had been harmed by their husbands.

[16] Address by Ghassan Salamé, the special representative of the UN secretary-general, on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, November 25, 2017.

[17] Three women and three girls were killed in an airstrike on Derna on October 30, 2017. The strike killed 16 civilians, all from one family, among them 12 children aged 2–16. No state or body claimed responsibility for the strike, but activists accused the Egyptian air force of carrying out the attack. See the report from Human Rights Watch, November 6, 2017, and Al Jazeera, October 30, 2017.

[18] See the statement from Human Rights Solidarity, March 3, 2018, and al-Manara Media, October 28, 2018.

[19] Report presented to the UN Human Rights Council, 34th session, January 13, 2017. According to the most recent report from the OHCHR, April 10, 2018, “‘These facilities are notorious for endemic torture and other human rights violations or abuses,’ the report says. For example, the detention facility at Mitiga airbase in Tripoli holds an estimated 2,600 men, women and children, most without access to judicial authorities. In Kuweifiya prison, the largest detention facility in eastern Libya, some 1,800 people are believed to be held.”

[20] Based on a joint UNSMIL/OHCHR report, December 13, 2016.

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