Libyan Women’s Experiences of Civil War and COVID-19
Ahlam ben Taboon and Asma Khalifa - Libya
Asma Khalifa is a Libyan Activist/Researcher, Co-Founder of Tamazight Women Movement and Khalifa Ihler Institute, she is currently a Research Fellow and PhD Student at German Institute of Global and Area studies.
Ahlam Ben Taboon is a Libyan Activist/Journalist, founder of Elidia for sustainable development, a non-governmental organization working on youth and women empowerment.
Libya has been in an ongoing civil war since 2011, the military campaigns have been diverse in scope and reasons. The uprising turned armed conflict has left already weakened institutions with immense challenges and opened the space for a wide range of conflicts to re-emerge. The impact has also been varied, but every aspect of the situation has taken t an immense toll on women’s lives and livelihoods. Due to the very gendered nature of the Libyan conflict, women do not participate in the military campaigns and therefore are often excluded from the decision-making process and positions whilst facing endless amounts of threats from displacement to assassinations and kidnapping.
This reality was exasperated by of the Coronavirus pandemic, especially as the health sector has been suffering way before 2011 due to corruption and has worsened in the past decade. Hospitals and health workers are often a target of indiscriminate shelling and countless other violations. The country’s economy was severely impacted by the conflict, not only due to the blockades of oil fields but also the consistency of corruption and mismanagement of the country’s funds. The consequences of COVID-19 on women was immediately severe. Internally displaced women are facing restrictive challenges and are now even more vulnerable; women with low income and sole providers for their families are among the examples of those currently suffering. And under-reported domestic violence is rife.
However, as often women are not only victims of conflicts, they also show agency which throughout the decade has been relentless in its efforts to take part in prevention or addressing root causes of the civil war. This was no different for the problems the pandemic generated. Libyan women have been seeking ways to respond to local needs and rally together to raise awareness about women’s diverse challenges, using innovative methods.
The quarantine campaign came out as a result of a workshop facilitated in Tripoli in early March by Asma Khalifa for Elidia, a local non-governmental organization (NGO) led by Ahlam Ben Taboon. This workshop aimed to raise the capacities of female activists in peace work using social media including Facebook among their tools. The group of activists later convened to design the campaign and launch it early April 2020. The campaign’s goal was to showcase women’s difficult experiences of the pandemic and connect them to relevant authorities who could assist as well as highlighting stories of resilience, of strong women who are fighting but also providing services during the lockdown.
The campaign team consisted of twelve members from three local nongovernmental organisations; Elidia, the Libyan Foundation for Supporting and Empowering women and the Tamazight Women Movement. The response has been extremely positive within the first week, women began to engage with the posts which covered a wide range of interests, from raising awareness about COVID-19 to stories of women who are subjected to domestic violence and forced displacement. Messages from women kept coming in for weeks on end, with thousands of interactions and engagements.
The first week of the campaign had focused on raising awareness about COVID-19, on prevention measures and social distancing. It especially focused on the situation of the internally displaced and migrants who do not have the luxury to socially distance nor access to water for hygiene . This highlighted the vulnerabilities the civil war has caused and now amplified by the pandemic. The second week, the topics were more about women’s lived experiences, positive and negative, including those who, strong and creative, continued to contribute to society by providing much needed services.
By the third and fourth week, stories and experiences flooded the inbox of the Facebook page. The team then worked to adjust the stories and share accordingly. This willingness to share not only stories of success but those of abuse and violation was completely unexpected.
Women often do not own the narrative around their experiences and how they perceive the issues that impact them. In the context of Libya, after decades of silence and suppression and a continuous brutal civil war, speaking up in general is hard, but for women especially, it means rebellion. And so it was important to create a platform for women’s stories, however limited. Representing women is obviously a difficult issue, they are not a homogenous group, there are wide variations linked to lifestyle, income and place of residence. Taking this into account, we share the following stories in the hopes of painting a picture of how Libyan women live during a pandemic and a raging civil war.
The pandemic has affected small businesses run by women. The Libyan legal system offers very little protection for such ventures and even less assistance to women in need of financial aid. The economy and the entire financial structures in Libya have been derailed since 2014, disruption of oil production and long power cuts have become the norm. There are more and more women who run households now in Libya, widowed by the war or simply have no one left but themselves. Many are internally displaced and rely on such jobs to care not only for themselves but entire families. Here are three examples:
“Mrs. Najwa says that due to the Coronavirus pandemic caused her beauty parlour to close due to direct interaction with the customers, the chance of other solutions to continue in the project in these circumstances are very slim, because work necessitates direct dealing with people”
“Nada, an influencer and expert in skincare and cosmetology, talks about her project with love and passion, which is handmade skin-friendly products free of harmful chemicals, , which she sells in bulk to pharmacies and stores.
She says that the Coronavirus pandemic has affected her business, and from her point of view, the reason is that people now consider care products luxury items, and the shipment and delivery of her products under the imposition of a curfew has become impossible”
“Layla, a photographer narrates that due to the Coronavirus pandemic crisis, she can no longer photograph social events. At first, she tried to photograph brides separately in the home studio, then tried to use more of the quarantine time to develop her talent and develop her skills by learning online about photo editing programs, like Adobe Photoshop & Adobe Lightroom. She went on to photograph products from her home”
Displacement continues to be a big issue in Libya, hundreds of thousands are uprooted, lacking in protection and support. One woman, Sumaia, shared her story in the light of the pandemic:
“After the attack on Tripoli in 2019), we left our home because of the war conditions, and because the area we were in is insecure after it became an area of clashes. The money that you have is not enough, and you cannot use it up all at once, hope is always there, what would have happened if the war had taken place during the pandemic?
Thinking too much is your companion, thinking about your home and your belongings, and the things you left behind because you had no time to take them with you. The change of the area in which you live will be affected if you have children who used to study in nearby schools before, you will have to search for a new school, if you have a business close to your home, it will be affected. In terms of everything, displacement is not just a move from one house to another, it’s psychological and physical pressure all the time. After a year, do we get used to the fear? The answer is no, but it has increased several folds in light of the Corona pandemic.”
Yet, there are always who inspire even in the darkest times and the most helpless of places. The perseverance and courage of Libyan women is boundless. Since the beginning of the pandemic, women who run sewing workshops and small factories turned them into production of protection prevention equipment (PEE) for COVID-19. We were overwhelmed by such stories. Women make up a large percentage of the health workers, those who are directly at risk of being infected but continue to fight even with the lack of equipment and collapsing hospitals that are often the target of bombardments.
“Mrs. JT is the director of the Al Jamila Tailoring and Training Centre, which provides employment opportunities for women. So far, the centre has helped 16 women find work. Like all other projects, Mrs. JT's project has been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic, but has she made the virus an obstacle to her effective role in society? Of course not!
On March 23rd, Mrs. H changed her centre’s production line from sewing clothes to sewing masks on a voluntary and free basis, and it was distributed to various public and private agencies. She also continued her bid to produce protective suits that would help the medical staff to protect them during their work, but unfortunately the scarcity of the required materials did not allow her to continue production”
“Mrs. WS, a nurse, and an analysis technician with 14 years of experience in the field, continues to provide a helping hand to everyone who needs it, even under the most severe circumstances that we are going through. “I don't regret entering the nursing field," she says. "I've always loved helping ." She describes the role of the women around her, including doctors, nurses and women in the support teams, how they face difficulties with great courage, have a great passion for learning every day, and smile all the time to infuse a feeling of comfort and positive energy into the patients.”
“I am with you" is a campaign to support medical personnel run by women, which was launched on April 4, in the presence of the Minister of Labor and Rehabilitation. They have been provided with a sewing workshop and were working through lockdowns and curfews to create PEE equipment. Since its inauguration, protective suits of up to 450 suits have been produced, the production has been divided into several departments: 50 suits for Al-Jalaa Hospital, 30 suits for a paediatric hospital, 40 suits for Sadr Hospital - Abu Sitta - 90 suits for cereals, 30 suits for blood banks, 20 suits for an antiquated hospital and 30 for another medical structures. One of the campaign members says that they faced a number of challenges during the production period, including the scarcity of fabrics and the curfews, but later they were able to obtain a security permit that allows them to move around.”
An increase of domestic violence
A number of articles in Libya have appeared describing a spike in domestic violence. Yet, the legal system has no provisions for the protection of women and even if it had, there would be no way of enforcing it. Perpetrators operate with total impunity in Libya and talking about domestic violence remains a taboo in the country. Women not only do not report such incidents, but do not even speak of them. There is no reliable data that measures gender-based violence and how it has increased because of the war, especially as guns are now easily accessible. The same goes for the pandemic, within the first weeks of the lockdown in Libya, three women were killed by their partners.
We have received such a story, which is rare and brave: “My father has been remarried for more than ten years, he no longer cares about me and my sister, as he does not want to bear our expenses. My brother, a doctor - who is supposed to have a degree of awareness as a graduate of the Faculty of Medicine - attacks me under the pretext that he is not obligated to care for my expenses, I have four sisters all are married, they do not stand up for me when I am being beaten. They are afraid of their husbands when they know that their brother is hitting his sister. Not one of my relatives knows what I am subjected to, I am afraid to talk in front of people about this matter, I am a graduate of the College of Electrical Engineering, I hope to get a job that protects me from the violence I am subjected to. I believe financial independence is the solution.” We can see that she does not complain about the pandemic as an illness or the change in living conditions it has brought about. This Facebook page was the one occasion where this young woman could express herself publicly and describe the daily violence she faces she considered worse than COVID-19.
These stories are but a glimpse of what women experience in Libya during the pandemic, they are multifaceted, for besides tragedy you can also see agency and strength. Throughout the campaign we continued to receive texts from women, who told us that it was empowering to see them published and read by others. Conclusion
Even in the most complex and dangerous settings, women’s rich stories and experiences can never be painted with one brush or presented from one perspective. This is quite clear from what has been shared through this campaign. There are so many other efforts, initiatives and projects that are led by women or are involved in. Such accumulation of efforts ought to be what informs those in governance, on how best to respond. However, this is rarely the case, women remain to unseen, unheard. Their experience and knowledge are often ignored.
This campaign not only provided a platform for the voiceless, but also serves as a documentation of women’s experiences, which in itself is a valuable contribution to understanding the impact of COVID-19 on women. It revealed the gendered inequality the pandemic stressed that urgently need to be addressed.
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