Charting the way forward for local women mediators in Libya

Women have played a crucial role in mediation and conciliation efforts in Libya since 2011. Yet women’s contribution to mediation and conciliation remains limited due to a myriad of factors. Specific policies and adequate measures are needed to overcome these challenges.

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    Since the uprising of 2011, Libyan women have played a pioneering role in the effort to mend Libya’s social fabric that was ripped apart during the conflict. This has taken place through mediating local conflicts, in addition to fostering conciliation and mediation at national level. Libyan women’s contribution to the mediation of local conflicts is underpinned by Libya’s rich culture and legacy of amicable dispute resolution. Mediation and reconciliation lie at the core of Libya’s nation building process. The very establishment of the modern Libyan nation state with the declaration of Libya’s independence was indebted to mediation and conciliation. The traditional culture of mediation and conciliation was systematically destroyed for four decades by Qaddafi’s autocracy which cultivated division and curbed mediation initiatives with the objective of breaking down Libya’s moral social fabric and the idea of Libyan nationhood. This destruction left scars on the national consciousness and the notion of division re-asserted itself in the years following the 2011 uprising.

    Challenges to women’s active engagement in mediation and reconciliation

    After pioneering the effort of challenging Qaddafi’s autocratic regime and its policies, women launched initiatives and engaged in mediation efforts to restore conciliation and peace. Libyan women from different backgrounds, professions, ethnicities, regions and age-groups made a number of breakthroughs, thereby contributing to horizontal mediation in Libyan villages, towns and cities. However, the contribution made by Libyan women to local mediation has faced a number of barriers, including the rise of the extremist discourse – the ultra-Salafist ethos that excludes and marginalises women – the deterioration of security conditions, the patriarchal culture, as well as the top-down approach that is enmeshed with the marginalisation of women by different actors, including the main political stakeholders and the international community. A number of specific policies and adequate measures are urgently needed to foster the contribution of Libyan women to peace and mediation.

    The way forward to strengthen women’s contribution to peace and reconciliation

    Grounding women’s mediation in local traditional structures and not as a ‘Western’ international policy intervention

    It is high time to debunk baseless claims, such as women’s mediation in local reconciliation “does not feature in [Libyan] customs” and that the international community “must respect their tradition, be realistic and deal with actual stakeholders.” It is quite unfortunate that this kind of discourse is shared by some international organisations or ‘experts’ who don’t put enough effort into understanding the society’s culture and customs and consider it sufficient simply to reproduce stereotypical propaganda about women in local communities. There is an urgent need to base efforts to foster women’s mediation in local reconciliation in national ownership. The Libyan tradition is filled with stories of women mediators. This tradition needs only to be unearthed, further explored and viewed through a fresh lens.

    Libyan women mediators launched brave local initiatives and organised community dialogues involving armed groups and community leaders to build trust among them and develop a common vision of how to disarm and disband militias. The city of Benghazi in particular witnessed between 2012 and 2014 leading initiatives by women to mediate between armed groups including radical Islamist ones like Ansar Sharia and tribal and community leaders. Women mediators launched similar initiatives in Sabha. In a collaborative effort to protest the civil war, they set up tents for peace to hold community dialogues to mediate between conflicting parties. Besides, local women in Nafusa Mountain took a brave initiative to mediate between armed groups and the General National Congress (GNC) after the blockade of the gas fields in protest to the electoral law of the constitutional assembly. Women managed to convince the armed groups to unblock the fields after voicing their message to the GNC.

    Women mediators continued to call for an inclusive constitutional process that recognises the languages of all groups. They called for an inclusive dialogue between the cultural minorities (Tabu, Amazigh and Tuareg) who were boycotting the constitutional process and encouraged the parties to embrace an inclusive discourse. More recently this year, a woman local mediator has led a purely tribal local reconciliation in Sirt between the two tribes of Awlad Suleiman and Qaddadifa. It is noteworthy to mention that women are members of Councils of the Notables & Elderly in several cities such as Bayda and Sabha.

    However, in the local reconciliation between Misrata and Tawergha, which was led by the UN, women local mediators faced more restraints. Women took the initiative to mediate between the two conflicting parties in the most sensitive conflict in Libya due to the allegations of sexual gender-based violence during the 2011 uprising. However, women local mediators in the Misrata/Tawergha reconciliation have complained about their exclusion during the process of drafting the agreement and from the reconstruction phase following the signature of the agreement. Similar complaints were voiced by other women local mediators who were excluded by international actors mediating between Libyan tribes. The signed agreement in Rome between Awald Suleiman & Tabu is certainly a case in point as not a single woman was invited. This undermines the serious participation of women and indicates that for the international community the participation of women in peace processes is only tokenistic.

    Historicising and contextualizing women’s contribution to local mediation

    We need to understand that neither Libya nor women are homogeneous categories, both are hybrid and complex. Therefore we need to take an intersectional approach to comprehend the context and adopt a hybrid policy in implementation. Put simply: to embrace complexities.

    Investing more in strengthening women’s initiatives at the local level

    While women have a lot to contribute in both the local and the national arenas, there is no doubt that the local space enjoys more primacy. While the society has responded positively to women’s initiatives and contributions in both areas, its response at local level has been greater. This is not to suggest that women should decrease their initiatives at national level. On the contrary, their initiatives should continue to grow, but not at the expense of the local context.

    Libyan women’s initiatives in local mediation need to be grounded in an attempt to restore a sense of nationhood. Much of the division and conflict is underpinned by the lack of a shared sense of identity, which is also what informs nation building. “The idea of ‘nationhood’ is a conception shared by a group of people who may be multi-ethnic and multicultural, but are connected to a homeland whose sons and daughters identify with a shared and common ‘national personality’ with unique characteristics, hold shared memory and narrative, and have shared concerns”. The deficit of nationhood is reflected in social divisions and exclusion based on tribal, ethnic, and regional considerations, and a decline in the sense of a bond that endows a national identity. The rise of ‘imported’ extremist religious ideologies has injured the national religious identity which, for centuries, was known to be moderate (wasati).

    Countering extremist Salafi discourse(s) on women’s participation in mediation

    To bolster women’s engagement in meditation, it is important to counter extremist Salafi discourse(s) (especially the Jihadist & mudkhali salafis which are all by products of political Islam) by engaging wasati traditional religious leaders to work closely with local women mediators. As outlined in a study entitled Libya’s Religious Sector and Peacebuilding Efforts, there is an urgent need to engage traditional religious actors in reconciliation efforts rather than in politics. To do this, before engaging traditional religious leaders, the international community needs to understand local alliances and conflict lines and not to generalise by religious belief. It is imperative to support partnerships between traditional religious institutions to develop and promote their own indigenous alternative discourse to violent extremism. The international actors should encourage joint tribal and traditional religious leader-mediation as an effective form of local dispute resolution. They should also support local reconciliation efforts that are inclusive of civil and religious organisations and groups, as well as those of women and young people.

    Fostering gender-responsive decentralisation and public service delivery while linking it to women’s efforts in local mediation

    Post-conflict governance reforms often include decentralisation, so that decision-making authority is devolved to tiers of government that are closer to the community. As central decision-making can overlook local needs and concerns, decentralisation provides an important entry point for national laws, policies and frameworks to be translated at local level. Such processes can be effective in addressing the root causes of conflict. As was stressed in the Global Study on Women, Peace and Security, “effective and inclusive service delivery can play a conflict-mitigating role by reducing tension and grievances between parties to a conflict over key basic services”. Enhancing public service delivery can signal “an inclusive new system of governance and stability”. An improvement in the delivery of basic needs, like security, water, access to food and healthcare – including sexual and reproductive healthcare – can have important implications for women and girls.

    In the post-conflict environment, women struggle with specific barriers to public services, including the threat of sexual and gender-based violence in insecure environments, difficulties with transport, finances and childcare, as well as continued marginalisation from decision-making processes. Rural women in particular, face major obstacles in accessing water, sanitation and healthcare. Restoring the social infrastructure and establishing basic social services needs to be prioritised; otherwise, women and marginalised groups will continue to suffer, especially given that conflict situations are likely to increase the number of disabled and dependents. Governments and the UN need to engage local women mediators in the design and decision-making on public service delivery systems as part of reconstruction plans. This should include engaging women mediators in monitoring the local peace agreements. Women mediators in Libya have voiced their disappointment about their continued exclusion from post-peace agreement plans, as in the case of Mistrata-Tawergha Peace Agreement, which is indebted to women’s initiatives.

    Formulate a national and an international network of women local mediators

    The national network should cover all cities, towns and villages. A means of sustainable communication needs to be established so that views and insights, experience and resources can be shared and exchanged. At the international level, there is much that can be learned from South Africa’s experience of local mediation and its positive impact on constitutional life. It is also important that experience is exchanged with women local mediators in Yemen and Syria given that these countries too, have been torn apart by prolonged conflict. Conferences on local mediation are needed in which experts from different jurisdictions share their experience and insights, and speak about the effect of local mediation in restoring constitutional 1.

    Build the capacity of women mediators in the international framework of human rights in addition to solidifying their knowledge of informal justice mechanisms

    Special attention ought to be given to restorative justice “which integrates restorative justice practices with customary practices to create a hybrid approach to conflict transformation in Libya”. The legal culture of Libya is a culture of custom first, and law second. The strength of customary practices has made some experts recommend that “when the formal legal system is built or rebuilt, customary practices can be woven into it, creating a balanced, stable mechanism for resolving conflicts”. This would give traditional leaders an enduring role in mediating disputes. Women lawyers and ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) centres should develop the structure of their practice in such a way as to provide the service of mediation in matters that can be settled through synthesising custom with law.

    Encouraging various modes of documentation of cases of local mediation in Libya

    This should include filmed, recorded and written documentation. Court records reflecting cases that were reviewed by the court and later settled by amicable means, including negotiation and mediation should also be compiled. This is important so that women who have expertise in local mediation can share their experience with later generations of mediators. A record should be made of the oral testimonies of elderly women, covering the history of mediation in the various cities of Libya over the last fifty years.

    This article is based on a study by the author for a UNDP project on local reconciliation in Libya.

    About the author
    Zahra Langhi is the Co-founder of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace and the First Social Affairs Officer at ESCWA Centre for Women.

    Read the full magazine issue

    North Africa, hope in troubled times – Volume 7, Issue 4 (Autumn 2018)
    06 November 2018
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