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Social taboos, outdated laws and a paralysed Judiciary continue to fail Libyan women

TRIPOLI, LEBANON - JULY 22: Libyan women pose for a photo in Tripoli, Lebanon on July 22, 2021. ( Halil Sağırkaya - Anadolu Agency )

According to a statement published on 13 July by Ministry of State for Women Affairs in Libya, seven women in seven different parts of the country were murdered between 4 July and 8 July. The victims, ranging in age from early twenties to late forties, have been killed as a result of domestic violence which has been on the rise over the last few years. The statement called on all relevant authorities to work together to quickly bring "accountability for the culprits" to the full extent of the law.

Libya's Ministry of Interior crime report, for 2021, registered 353 murders. Observers, however, think the numbers are much higher and the published figures lack details. Criminology and Penal Code specialist, Hussein Ahmed, believes the murder rate in the country has risen over the last decade, mainly because "Libya is awash with weapons and the Judiciary is paralysed and inefficient" in holding perpetrators "accountable", to deter others from committing such crimes, Mr. Ahmed said. World Bank figures says Libya, in 2015, recorded 2,500 homicides per 100, 000 populations in 2015 but no data is available for the current year.

Since it was visited by the so-called "Arab Spring" that ended the rule of the late leader, Muammer Gaddafi, in 2011, Libya has been in chaos with armed militias roaming the country, almost freely. Weapons are cheaply available on the black market and all successive governments, since October 2011, have failed to collect weapons, let alone eradicate militias. This kind of environment, says Ali Sanousi, a political analyst, is "perfect for criminals" since they know accountability does not exist.

Khadija Al-Sadiq, head of Libyan Amazons Organisation, a Benghazi-based women's civil society organisation, laments the old days when security was never an issue. She told MEMO that Benghazi, in particular, is missing "strong leaders" with an anti-crime agenda.

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Under Gaddafi, Libya was one of the safest places in Africa. Lack of security is the biggest hurdle, making the country almost ungovernable since 2011 when armed militias, who helped topple Gaddafi, have been getting stronger, more sophisticated and richer, thanks to illicit money through blackmailing governments.

Mrs. Al-Sadiq, who personally knew the two sisters murdered by their own father, thinks that Libya's "penal code and lack of law enforcement" are behind the brutal murder of both sisters, Bushra and Yasmina Al-Tuwair, who were shot dead by their own father on Eid Al-Adha day, 9 July. A decade ago, such domestic violence crimes targeting women were very rare in Libya.

Zeinb Abedi, a legal expert, and colleague of Mrs. Al-Sadiq, thinks the criminal law itself needs urgent reform because, in its current text, it does not "help women" victims of abuse by their own families. She points out that Article 375 of the current penal code mandates maximum eight years' prison term for those who kill for "their family honour". Murder for honour crimes includes murder of woman accused of "fornication", whether she is married or not. Ms. Abedi thinks this kind of lenient punishment is not a "strong deterrent" for potential murders. She also pointed out that the mandated sentence for murder is life imprisonment, but not in cases of what is called "honour crimes". She concluded by saying "murder is murder, regardless of motive."

The murders in Benghazi shocked the whole country, as more similar crimes are being reported. It is very unlikely that any security "approach would end the women targeted violence", according to Mustafa Ben Yahia, a political analyst. He added that fighting crime requires a "holistic" approach in which "security forces, the police, citizens and Judiciary" work together. While figures are not available, Mr. Yahia believes as long as "weapons are widely available and lack of political settlement continues", all kind of crimes will increase.

Abusive fathers, brothers and husbands in conservative Libya, usually are under-reported and, when reported, the authorities do not take action until it is too late.

This is exactly the case of Mr. Al-Tuwair, described as a drug addict, who sent shockwaves across the country by murdering his two daughters in Benghazi. His wife, trying to hide from him, by constantly changing homes, reported his violent-abusive behaviour at least twice to the local police, but nothing happened.

Mrs. Al-Sadiq, who knew the mother of the victims, described the murder as one of continued "attacks on women in Libya" as the government fails to hold the perpetrators to account. She said her organisation tried to help the family by giving the mother of four a cleaning job, and helped one of the daughters study nursery. Yasmina, the younger victim, was expected to graduate this month.

Tripoli's Ministry of Social Affairs has been contacted for comment, but did not reply.

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A female Tripoli-based law student, speaking anonymously, told MEMO, "Libyan women are victims of social taboos", preventing them from reporting family violence. Victims of bullying and family abuse are looked at with contempt if they report such abuses, particularly against family members like "brothers, husbands and fathers". She added "they cannot seek divorce" either, since women divorcees in Libya are "immediately outcast", not only by the patriarchal society, but by women, too.

Mr. Al-Tuwair, the father who murdered his two daughters in Benghazi, has been arrested after a week on the run. It will be a long time before any court decides his fate. In the meantime, women will continue to be victimised, unless the entire society decides to take action. However, any decisive action to protect women and girls under the current troubled political situation is unlikely to have any positive outcome in the short term.  Al-Hadi Ali, professor of family law at the University of Zawia, thinks "family and criminal laws" are in urgent need of reform, and that can only happen under "stable and peaceful" circumstances, which are "lacking" in Libya now.

Libya's current Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, who never stopped boasting about his support for women, is yet to comment on the week-long slaughtering of the very women he claims to empower and protect. His government has a record number of ministers, but that does not mean Libyan women today are better off than they were a decade ago.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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