Libyan women initially were largely excluded from official peace talks. In 2020, following a campaign for inclusion, seventeen of the seventy-five negotiators (23 percent) in the UN-facilitated Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) were women, marking a significant improvement in women’s representation in the official Libyan peace process. In addition to the LPDF, over one thousand Libyans participated in a UN-facilitated digital dialogue for women.
Libyan women in civil society organized to influence the peace process and garner support for it. Although women were often excluded from formal peace processes, they participated in conflict resolution and mediation at the local level. Libyan women in civil society also advocated for greater inclusion of women in the official peace process, ultimately leading to female representation of 23 percent in the LPDF.
Following the 2011 uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi and military intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), interim governments struggled for legitimacy as armed militias vied for power [PDF]. The combination of a weak federal government, decentralized power centers, and recurrent terrorist attacks led to widespread instability and violence, culminating in civil war in 2014. In 2015, warring parties forged the Libyan Political Agreement, in which the United Nations recognized the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA); however, the Libyan House of Representatives, elected in 2014, did not recognize the GNA. Instead, the House of Representatives allied with the Libyan National Army (LNA), which comprised various armed militias and was led by Khalifa Haftar, a former Qaddafi loyalist who switched allegiance and lived in exile in the United States until the 2011 uprising. In the ensuing years, the LNA assumed control of different territories in east Libya, while both the GNA and LNA embarked on separate campaigns against Islamist militants in the country. In April 2019, the LNA began an offensive against the GNA-controlled Tripoli; in June 2020, the GNA, with military support from Turkey, successfully repelled the LNA, which had support from Egypt, France, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates. The conflict has killed over 2,600 Libyans from April 2019 to June 2020 alone, with almost 30,000 people displaced in June.
In the summer and fall of 2020, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) facilitated a dialogue between representatives from the GNA and LNA on de-escalation and the removal of foreign fighters. In October 2020, the parties announced a national cease-fire. In November 2020, UNSMIL convened the first meeting of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in Tunis, in which seventy-five Libyans hailing from different regions, tribes, and political affiliations committed to a road map to hold democratic elections in December 2021. UNSMIL also convened parallel online discussions to foster an inclusive peace process. On February 5, 2021, the LPDF nominated a new interim government, with Abdulhamid Dabaiba as prime minister and Mohamed al-Menfi as head of a three-person presidential advisory council. On March 10, 2021, Libya’s parliament approved this interim unity government.
Historically, Libyan women were largely excluded from official peace talks. This exclusion began to change in 2018, under the Libyan National Conference track two peace process overseen by UNSMIL and hosted by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, in which seven thousand Libyans were consulted—25 percent of whom were women.
The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum marked a major turning point for women’s participation in the conflict resolution process. Of the seventy-five Libyans in the LPDF, seventeen were women (23 percent), in part due to lobbying by Stephanie Williams, the former head of the UNSMIL. In parallel to the LPDF, UNSMIL convened an online dialogue sub-track for women with over one thousand Libyans participating.
Despite this improvement, Libyan women’s participation in public and political life has been dangerous in recent years, as women in public positions have been the targeted in high-profile attacks. Strikes against public figures, including Hanan al-Barassi, Seham Sergewa, and Salwa Bughaighis, are important reminders of the risks facing Libyan women who speak out on the future of their country. Notwithstanding these hazards, Libyan women have found ways to foster peace in their communities outside of official peace processes, including by participating in local negotiations such as mediating tribal disputes.
Libyan women have also exerted leadership in civil society roles to influence the Libyan peace process. For example, activists Hajer Sharief and Rida al-Tubuly cofounded Together We Build It, a civil society organization that advances peace and security in Libya. Sharief and Tubuly have used their platforms to advocate for greater women’s inclusion in the Libyan peace process. In addition, the Libyan Women’s Network for Peacebuilding, founded in 2019, has provided a platform from which Libyan women have organized to make the peace process more inclusive.
Broadening the agenda. In the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, women highlighted important issues that would otherwise have been sidelined, including transitional justice and accountability for human rights violations—even when men were more reluctant to address these topics. The road map produced by the LPDF includes transitional justice as a principle for the national reconciliation process.
Greater transparency and participation in peace process. Women peace-builders insisted on broadcasting the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum to promote transparency and build community buy-in. “Women campaigned and insisted on the Libyan ownership in the UNSMIL process,” according to Lamees BenSaad, a member of the LPDF.
Community advocacy and support. Women peace-builders used their networks to assist community members vulnerable to violence, called for the release of political prisoners, and sought protection for women in political positions. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, women peace-builders helped provide direct services to migrants and refugees and advocated for communities most affected by the conflict.
Bringing civil society experience to the table. Libyan women’s extensive experience in civil society prior to participating in the LPDF enabled them to work cooperatively and productively with other negotiators in the official Libyan peace process. The skill sets Libyan women developed through their work in civil society helped negotiators find common areas of agreement and informed their negotiation strategies.
“There is a lack of trust and confidence in the capabilities of women in the political realm…In the rare case where women are included in peace processes, they are often taken in to merely tick the box of women participation, and are still not given an equal opportunity in participation.”
—Maryam Dajani, program and communication officer at Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace (LWPP)