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Women empowerment in conflict
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Women empowerment in conflict

A young Libyan lawyer is pushing for the economic empowerment of women in Libya
Photo by Jusoor/Hala Bulgaighis of a women's coding workshop. Used with permission

Despite the conflict present in Libya since 2011, a rapid spread of entrepreneurship and startups among Libyan women has contributed to the effort to rebuild the state in the regions where peace has been established. Among these strong women is a young Libyan lawyer named Hala Bugaighis. Bugaighis co-founded the first Libyan Think-And-Do-Tank, the Jusoor Center for Studies and Development. Jusoor fights for the economic empowerment of women in the conflict-ridden country by hosting workshops and panel discussions for women, through grassroots activism, advocacy, capacity building and entrepreneurship. It is the first Libyan think tank for policy research and development projects that focuses on women empowerment.

Bugaighis found time to speak with WIB during her ongoing medical treatment in Tunis in late December 2017. Despite having recently been in a car crash and then relying only on pain killers until finding a trusted doctor, her charisma and inspiring devotion to her fight for women’s rights and economic empowerment were not diminished in the least. Bugaighis combines an eloquent presence with her passion for making a difference by re-building her country as she recounted her inspiring journey. 

A detrimental environment for women

Bugaighis is working for change in a country that is currently divided between three different governments, only one of which has been internationally recognized. Forces aligned with all governments and dozens of militias continue to clash, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis with close to half-a-million internally displaced people. As a result, the Libyan civilian population has struggled to gain access to basic services such as healthcare, fuel and electricity, according to Human Rights Watch. Violent conflict is ongoing in vast regions of the country, and those which are considered “peaceful” for the moment may destabilize rapidly.  In the cash strapped country, criminal gangs and militias regularly abduct politicians, journalists and civilians—including children—for political and monetary gain. Largely controlled by militias, the justice system has remained largely dysfunctional. The influx of migrants transiting through Libya to reach Europe has complicated the situation further.

The situation of women, including Bugaighis, has also deteriorated since the rise of extremist groups throughout the revolution and especially after 2014. Women have become victims of sexual violence, torture and more, especially in the conflict zones. Militias and armed groups have implemented restriction on the movement of women, who are no longer allowed to leave their homes after dinner and are required to have permission from either a father or husband to travel outside the region.

Being a changemaker in conflict

A business lawyer by education, Bugaighis worked for the an oil company in Libya for 6 years but in 2011 when the revolution broke out, the oil company left the country, putting her out of a job. Subsequently, she started her own law firm with a group of women and named it “ORAS”. As Bugaighis explains, the names comes from a mountain in Algeria that had previously been the stronghold of the Amazigh kingdom lead by Kahina, the Amazigh queen. This reference was chosen to underline that they were strong women, leading their own company during a time of great insecurity for women in the country. At the time, her male competitors would only organize evening meetings, so she and her colleagues had to literally risk their lives to keep their project going.

In 2014, when chaos broke out again, Bugaighis and her colleagues had to close down the law firm, as most of their clients left Libya for security reasons, and they were forced to work from home. During that time, in 2014 and 2015, a crack-down on activists and active women began.

Bugaighis’ own cousin, Salwa Bugaighis, an outspoken women’s rights activist and perhaps the most charismatic figure in Libya’s women’s movement, was a target of these attacks. At the time, she was publicly calling for people to vote in the elections in Benghazi. Based in Tripoli, she travelled to Benghazi herself to participate in the elections and vote, and was stabbed and shot in their house in Benghazi, while her husband was abducted. Her assassination caused an outrage on social media, according to the Guardian. Three weeks later, another woman, this time a parliament member representing the city of Derna, Fareha Al Barqawi, was killed.

For Bugaighis, this period was a time of depression and mourning for her cousin, and to make matters worse, she was also facing economic difficulties. After her cousin’s death, she started paying more attention to civil society and women’s rights, also Salwa’s focus. In Libya, there was no focus on economic empowerment of women at the time, and no data or statistics on women in the workforce, according to the lawyer. The growth she experienced from this time manifested as Jusoor, which Bugaighis co-founded with Ekram El Huni, a cross-disciplinary humanitarian professional based in Beirut, in December 2015.

Women as a powerful source of change

Starting out as just a Facebook group leading discussions on women’s rights issues in Libya, the group morphed into the organization that it is today. At Jusoor, one of the main goals is to boost women’s inclusion in general economic development.  The think tank promotes entrepreneurship and social innovation for Libyan women as critical components in reforming the economy and tackling major social challenges. Beyond this, special attention is paid to women’s issues in Libya as “the best way to promote human development for the whole country,” as Bugaighis points out. Bridging the gender gap is conceived as a real and concrete way to be a part of Libya’s healing and to build sustainable development.

“In a crisis, women managed to get money home, they were creative and innovative while employing long-term thinking,” explained Bugaighis. “It is very important to invest in women, because they really are the key to sustainable development in Libya.”

Photo by Jusoor/Hala Bulgaighis of a women’s dialogue workshop in Yefren, Libya. Used with permission.


Paving the way for women in Libya

The young think tank built a strong reputation on a national and international level in a short period of time. In the beginning, the women funded the startup out of their own pockets. Only in 2016 did they receive their first grant.

In 2017, they started to implement projects in four different cities they decided to make their focal points: Tripoli, where they are based, Benghazi, Sebha and Yefren, where they organized different activities, such as a women’s dialogue to engage with the women of these regions and different workshops.

The influence and reputation of the young think tank has been growing rapidly, and recently, Jusoor was invited to be part of the Khadija Network, which is an Arab organization for economic empowerment of women that is part of the Arab league.

The  “Stereotype Breaker”

Whether in the women-led law firm, or now with the think tank for economic development of women, this inspiring woman hasn’t stopped working for progress. It is incredibly important that women like Hala Bugaighis are pushing for change and development in Libya’s conflict situation, as “the inclusion of women…can help to consolidate wartime gains and increase female participation in society on all levels,” according Guillaume Biganzoli. Including women not only as participants but as leaders in a society that is recovering from conflict would increase economic growth as a whole, as pointed out by Biganzoli in his analysis of women’s roles in the Yemen conflict and peace processes. Furthermore, a 2015 qualitative study conducted by the International Peace Institute (IPI) showed that peace processes that were more inclusive of women had higher chances of success.

Photo by Jusoor of Hala Bugaighis. Used with permisson.

Economic and political inclusion of women to encourage the peace process is also what Hala Bugaighis is calling for, and she doesn’t let her critics and adversaries stop her from pushing for change.

“I can’t imagine without negative feedback, people who are trying to put you down. This kind of negative feedback, it somehow teaches you to go on. Because you need to prove them wrong,” explains the lawyer. “So, I need these kinds of things. Me, I always call myself a stereotype breaker. I always try to prove people wrong. It’s what keeps me going.”

Magdalena Mach

Magdalena is a queer feminist currently doing her MA's in Gender, Violence and Conflict at Sussex Universityin Brighton, UK. For the past 4 years she was based mainly in Tunisia, where she was working in projects as writer, translator or volunteer, and studying. Her research and work focus has been circling around the themes of discrimination of and state violence against minorities, policing of queer spaces and bodies, and intersectional feminism. In her free time, she experiments with mixing of sounds.
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