Conflict and coronavirus – Libyan women pay the higher price

War was ever a man's game. In Libya, where political rivals have been fighting it out for years, the needs of women have all too often been overlooked. Yet the country is going to need everyone’s contribution, argues Asma Khalifa, if it is to survive the upcoming changes

By Asma Khalifa

As soon as the pandemic state of emergency was declared in Libya, the government in Tripoli began dispensing funds intended to combat COVID-19. Much was sunk in corrupt deals or used to silence public concerns. After all, Libyans are well aware that were a health crisis to affect them, they would have nowhere to go.

Libyans were travelling to Tunisia for medical treatment long before 2011. Although the closing of borders due to coronavirus is now preventing travel, travel restrictions for women are nothing new. Due to the breakdown in the security apparatus, women whose travel is restricted as a result are unable to drive freely on their own between towns to access services, including health. Security on the roads is often precarious. Not only armed conflicts could erupt at any point, but the roads are also littered with fake checkpoints where Libyan citizens are frequently hijacked, or kidnapped and held to ransom.

Women trapped between conflict and health

The situation in the west of Libya has worsened due to the ongoing war, with hospitals, health facilities and medical personnel readily targeted. On 7 April, heavy shelling by the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) hit Al Khadra Hospital maternity ward, injuring a health worker and damaging the hospital’s facilities. Al Khadra hospital had been earmarked as one of the potential COVID-19 health facilities.

 Mask-wearing GNA fighters in Libya (photo: Imago-Images/A. Salahuddien)
It's a man's world: "due to the highly gendered nature of the Libyan conflict, women are particularly missing from the picture, since they are not fighting and are not represented in government," writes Asma Khalifa. While the coronavirus curfew could indeed contribute to flattening the curve, it takes no account of the humanitarian impact on families already struggling due to a decade of conflict

Royal hospital in Tareeq Al-Shouq, south of Tripoli was destroyed in late April. Hospitals also lack equipment, water and beds to host a potential influx of patients. This puts medical staff at risk of infection, with women making up the majority of nursing staff.

At Al Jalaa paediatric hospital, a suspected COVID-19 patient was received by a female doctor who later had to quarantine herself. Such situations can lead to the stigmatisation of health workers. This can particularly affect women, and in turn can lead to dire social consequences in a society that uses reputational damage to control women far more than men. Women may then feel inclined to withdraw from the health sector altogether.

Given Libya's political schism along geographical lines, each side has developed its own response mechanism to the pandemic. The authorities in the east have attempted to control and silence any dissident voices remotely critical of conditions in the healthcare system. The government in Tripoli – preoccupied with the fighting in the south of the capital – took on preventive measures and imposed strict curfew hours, fining any flouters. This has further empowered the security forces that already operated with impunity in the capital.While the curfew could indeed contribute to flattening the curve, it takes no account of the humanitarian impact on families already struggling due to a decade of conflict. And the impact on women has been greatest. Those women who are the most vulnerable, including the internally displaced, women on a low income, or women who live in remote locations and are sole providers are in a dire situation financially and logistically.

Many of them do not have the luxury to stop working, needing access to their daily income and the freedom to access public transport. These specifically female vulnerabilities have neither been assessed nor considered by government policy, whether when allocating resources or in lockdown measures.

Government is not gender-inclusive

When the COVID-19 crisis committee announced some of its plans, it was immediately clear that the gendered implications of the pandemic on women had not been considered. In response, fourteen local organisations that work in support of women’s rights co-signed an open letter to the presidential council, urging them to include some gender-sensitive recommendations in their action plan to address COVID-19.


No response or action was taken towards this letter. There has been no humanitarian assistance or compensation provided for women who are internally displaced, nor any assessment of those at risk of losing their livelihoods because of the pandemic. Add to that the failure to consider ways of addressing the attendant rise in gender-based violence.


Within the first weeks of the lockdown in Libya, three women were reported murdered by their partners across the country. There are no official mechanisms to report domestic violence, a topic that remains taboo in the North African country. Women who are at risk at home have nowhere to turn and now even fewer resources to seek help elsewhere.


On the other hand, the presidential council proceeded to reduce salaries (excluding their own) as part of austerity measures brought on by the oil blockade and the lockdown. According to Hala Bugaighis, women working in so-called pink-collar jobs, are paid less than men and are more likely to lose their jobs since men’s labour is more valued in the workforce. This may significantly impact the migrant community in Libya, especially female migrants and refugees, who are likely to be most severely affected.


Women take the initiative


Despite the significant shrinking of civil society space since 2014, non-governmental organisations are unremitting in their service delivery, often in partnership with municipalities. Civil society organisations often lack the resources to implement their own responses, however many have begun voluntary independent initiatives.


There are now multiple online campaigns such as Quarantine and Don’t overburden yourself, which aim to raise awareness about COVID-19 and its gendered impact, flagging the rising incidents of domestic violence, providing legal advice to victims, and assisting women in need.


Women who run small businesses have been impacted negatively by the pandemic. However, some women who run sewing workshops and fashion houses have proven inspirational in their local communities by manufacturing medical equipment needed for the hospitals. Another example is the work carried out by Lybotics which prints 3D medical masks. Libyan civil society has remained flexible, though barely heeded by the state.


Government policies tend to ignore civil society organisations, despite the latter's direct contact with the communities in need and, by extension, their ability to assess potential risks and mitigation measures more effectively. Due to the highly gendered nature of the Libyan conflict, women are particularly missing from the picture, since they are not fighting and are not represented in government. Due to an absence of communication between the decision makers and CSOs, their work is largely missing from policies. The government should establish regular communication channels to consult CSOs and particularly women.

The pandemic’s implications are very tangible. The warring factions and their foreign backers must stop all hostilities, not only to come up with a solution to the conflict, but also to face the immense economic and social challenges resulting from COVID-19. If it is to survive the upcoming changes, Libya needs everyone’s contribution – now, more than ever.

Asma Khalifa

© Open Democracy 2020

Asma Khalifa is a Libyan activist and researcher, co-founder of the Tamazight Women’s Movement (TWM). She is currently a research fellow and PhD student at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. In 2016, Asma was awarded the Luxembourg Peace Prize during the World Peace Forum and the following year was named one of the ‘100 Most Influential Young Africans’.