LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Libyan authorities should ensure women are well represented in the Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the country’s new constitution, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report published on Monday.
Many women played key roles in the uprising that toppled former leader Muammar Gaddafi, but some fear the gains they have made over the last two years could be eroded if women’s rights are not enshrined in new legislation.
A draft electoral law that will determine the composition of the Constituent Assembly could be ready as early as this week, Gauri van Gulik, women’s rights advocate at HRW, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“This is a crucial time for women’s rights in the country because we know from Tunisia, from Egypt ... that the constitution is really the place where we need to get good guarantees for gender equality,” she said.
Van Gulik did not know whether the electoral law was likely to include a gender quota.
The report by the New York-based rights group urged the Libyan government and parliament to ensure that women can participate actively and equally in the drafting of the new constitution and said the document should guarantee full equality between men and women and explicitly prohibit “discrimination based on gender, sex, pregnancy, and marital status, among other categories”.
The Constituent Assembly will be chosen by a popular election expected later in 2013, HRW said.
Libyan authorities have been struggling to govern the North African country after Gaddafi was overthrown in a 2011 uprising. Armed militias still rule parts of the country, which is awash with weapons, and violent attacks have increased in recent weeks.
“You have the government that on paper is really quite pro human rights and that includes an acknowledgment of women’s rights and the understanding that women should be part of the process,” van Gulik said.
“However, the amount of power this government has is limited because there are still so many militias and groups in control of certain parts of the country.”
On Sunday, the national congress approved a new interior minister after the incumbent submitted his resignation, the latest turnover in political leadership which highlights the challenges the country faces in establishing a central authority.
Thirty-three women were elected to the 200-member General National Congress (GNC) in the 2012 parliamentary election, the first free elections in decades in Libya. The result marked a significant advancement in women’s political participation which was helped by an electoral law mandating that each electoral list alternate male and female candidates to ensure women were elected.
“Women’s rights activists in Libya say women have made gains over the past two years, playing an important role in public life,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, director of the women’s rights division at HRW. “But they have legitimate fears that women will lose ground as the country struggles to build its new legal and judicial institutions.”
Despite these gains Libyan women still face significant challenges, HRW said. Cultural attitudes hinder women’s participation in the public sphere - engaging in politics is still thought to be inappropriate for a woman whose main duties include looking after the home and the family.
Ensuring a legal frame that prioritises women’s rights is paramount as women still face discrimination under Libya’s current penal code, HRW said. For example, the code classifies sexual violence as a “crime against a woman’s honour”, where the woman is not seen as a victim and the focus is on the shame brought on the family.
HRW called on the GNC and future parliaments to repeal or amend Gaddafi-era laws and regulations such as discriminatory laws on gender-based violence and unequal personal status laws.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - especially women’s rights groups - that have flourished since the fall of Gaddafi after being banned during his rule are fighting to ensure women’s political representation and to change the constitutional language and the penal code in order to guarantee gender equality, van Gulik said.
“It’s going to be very difficult to get a strong constitution in human rights ... It’s going to be a battle and we need all hands on that to make sure that the text is as good as it can be.”
Click here for a timeline of Libya since the uprising
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