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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

At a glance: women's rights in Libya

Libyan women enjoy a greater degree of freedom compared with their Gulf peers, but the reality is not always as good as the laws suggest.
In a region where legal and cultural norms impede women's rights, women in Libya enjoy a reasonably high status. They have been able to vote since 1964 - later than in Egypt and Syria but earlier than in many of the Gulf states - and Libya has signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw). In 2004 it was the first Arab country to adopt an optional protocol allowing women to petition a UN committee about violations of their rights.

Men cannot divorce their wives without recourse to a court, and in 2010 the law was changed to allow Libyan women to pass on their nationality to their children. Women have access to education and work, especially in medicine, law and teaching. But the reality is not as good as the formal situation suggests, says Nadya Khalife, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based human rights group.

"Legal rights are not always translated into action," she says.

That view is echoed by many women in Libya. Despite working, they are still expected to be homemakers. Many attribute a welcome rise in employment to economic forces - low wages have caused many to take on jobs. Further, abortion is illegal and sexual violence legislation still provides for a reduction in punishment for a man who is violent to a female relative following an alleged sexual transgression by her.

As part of Muammar Qaddafi's bid to alter society after his takeover in 1969, he promoted a greater role for women, specifically calling on them to join the workforce. Most famous are his female bodyguards, known as the revolutionary nuns. But his autocratic rule has been the main obstacle in the fight for women's rights in Libya, according to a 2010 report by Freedom House, a non-governmental organisation based in Washington, DC.

A lack of democratic institutions and freedom of assembly and expression in Libya have limited women's ability to lobby for change. And the conservative and religious nature of much of Libyan society prevents many social reforms.

If a new, free Libya emerges, women in Benghazi hope they will be able to form their own independent women's rights organisations and push for a more inclusive society.