Women in Libya have had a long history of actively participating in the economic, social and political development of the country, long before the Gaddafi regime took power. As early as 1955, women rallied to establish the first women’s groups, but suffered under the Gaddafi regime as complete independence from the regime and its influence was impossible.
Prior to the Gaddafi regime, Libyan women had the right to actively participate in social and political life, having acquired the right to vote in 1920. However, when Gaddafi introduced the Declaration of the Authority of the People in 1977 and the Great Green Charter of Human Rights in the Age of the Masses in 1988, these rights and freedoms suffered under increasing civil rights restrictions by the Gaddafi regime, despite women being allowed equal status as men in matters such as social security, assistance to obtain work and financial independence. Furthermore, traditional family laws maintained a discriminatory stance toward the position of women in Libya, notably disadvantaging women in areas concerning marriage, divorce, child custody and laws against sexual violence.
Perhaps one of the most important consequences of the restrictions imposed by Gaddafi was the struggle for emancipation and financial independence of women. The contrasts between the pre-Gaddafi and Gaddafi periods are stark. The pre-Gaddafi Libyan society increased access to education for women, leading to an acceptance of paid female employment and the resultant emancipation and independence. When Gaddafi came to power in 1969, access to education and paid employment was severely diminished with restrictions being imposed on the types of education women could access. Adhering to a cultural bias on gender roles, women were only allowed to be educated in the fields of health care, administration and light industrial work. This led to the exclusion of women from the political and economic fields, and directly contradicted earlier equality laws.
To worsen an already dire situation, the draft of the new constitution included few policy changes involving women’s rights. In 2012, the quota for women in parliament was dropped, resulting in large numbers of women still being excluded from public decision-making and democratic political processes. Gender Concerns International has been closely following the election process in Libya and has observed that only a small percentage of people currently in office are women.
In addition, the political situation contributed very little to the security of women. Laws have been amended to legalize discrimination against women and laws that do exist to protect women are considered weak in their implementation potential. Examples include the specific provisions on marriage, child custody, divorce and their consequences. One of the issues has been the regulation on polygamy which was the main topic of the first speech of the interim leader after the liberation from Gaddafi. To the concern of Gender Concerns International and many other NGOs, the restrictions on polygamy in Libya were lifted in 2011.