Women Under Siege Conflict Profile: Libya

Published January 2012 as part of the Women Under Siege project.

In February 2011, protests broke out in Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya, against the more than 40-year rule of Muammar Gaddafi. During the protests, security forces fired on civilian protesters, causing a broader uprising that led to the establishment of the National Transitional Council (NTC), an interim governing body in opposition to Gaddafi’s regime. As violence escalated and the regime began to issue statements indicating a willingness to massacre civilians in order to crush the rebellion, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution that permitted international intervention in Libya.

NATO member countries quickly established a “no-fly zone” to prevent Gaddafi’s military from bombing rebel-held cities; they also continued to embargo arms shipments to Libya as per a February United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution. Ill-trained, ill-equipped, and lacking a unified command structure, the opposition forces nevertheless seized Tripoli in late August. On October 20, 2011, Gaddafi was reportedly killed in Sirte as the city fell to the NTC forces. His son and presumed successor, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who had been a central figure throughout the civil war, remained in hiding until his capture by rebel fighters in mid-November; he awaits trial in Libya. Since August, the NTC has attempted to consolidate control of the country, though the issue of overseas frozen assets and the need to disarm and demobilize rebel fighters continue to present serious challenges.

The possibility of the use of rape as a tool of war in Libya was first brought to international attention in March whenIman al-Obeidi, a Libyan law student, burst into the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli and told the foreign journalists staying there that she had been held for two days and gang-raped by Gaddafi’s soldiers. Security forces dragged her from the hotel, and the government tried to downplay the incident by claiming she was mentally ill, but the damage to the regime had been done. Rumors of a coordinated campaign of mass rape trickled out, but the sourcing was thin and contentious. Central to the controversy was the work of Seham Sergewa, a Libyan psychologist who claimed to have sent out 70,000 questionnaires and received 60,000 responses, despite the lack of a functional postal system. Among these responses were 259 reports of rape; when asked about the possibility of following up with these individuals, however, Sergewa claimed to have lost contact with them. Further accounts by rebel fighters of finding Viagra and condoms, ostensibly used to help soldiers to rape, in burned-out loyalist vehicles went unsubstantiated as well.

While evidence of systematic rape remains scarce, it is clear that there were numerous incidents of rape, and it is equally clear that the threat of rape was used to instill fear in entire communities. “In Libya, when rape occurs, it seems to be a whole village or town which is seen to be dishonored,” said Arafat Jamal of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. In a report presented to the U.N. Security Council in November, International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said that “in Libya, rape is considered to be one of the most serious crimes, affecting not just the victim, but also the family and the community, and can trigger retaliation and honor-based violence.” In an interview conducted by international aid organization Physicians for Human Rights, one informant said, ‘“If Gaddafi destroys a building, it can be rebuilt. But when Gaddafi rapes a woman, the whole community is destroyed forever. He knows this, and so rape is his best weapon … I’d prefer to die if that happened to my wife.”

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