By Sarah Page
The United Nations’ latest efforts to broker a cease-fire between the armies warring for control of Libya have floundered.
Yet despite the continuing conflict, or perhaps because of it, fresh hopes are emerging for Libya’s women to claim a greater role in rebuilding their country’s economy.
SPARK, a Dutch non-governmental organization focused on higher education and entrepreneurship in post-conflict countries, is working with partner organizations in Libya to help women reach that goal.
Conflicts can often upend existing gender hierarchies.
or example, in Europe and the United States, the Second World War left so many men dead or injured that women were required to enter the civil and military workforces to sustain industries and the economies.
In the following decades, women campaigned for greater opportunities in employment, politics and power.
Libya is at a similar turning point now.
“This is the golden opportunity for Libyan women,” says Hala Bugaighis, founder of Jusoor for Studies and Development, a policy research organization that is one of SPARK’s partners in Libya. “I don’t think that women are willing to go back to the shadows anymore.”
Aya Mahjoub, the founder of a training, language and consulting center in Benghazi, shared that sentiment. “War has forced Libyan women to enter the job market, often without enough awareness, skills and experience,” she said. “Therefore, training for entrepreneurship is very important.
It could be more important than funding, because a project can’t survive without good skills in management and planning.”
Najla Al-Missalati, also of Benghazi, founded an initiative called She Codes, which teaches women how to code and program. Al-Missalati also hopes to see more support for entrepreneurs in Libya.
“The need for funding and mentorship for entrepreneurs in Libya is very important and can really make a difference if it is implemented well,” she said.
The Employment Gap for Libyan Women
Libya’s women are highly educated. In a 2013 report, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems found that there were almost the same number of women holding a bachelor’s degree (or higher) as men, and 77 percent of Libyan women under 25 years old intended to pursue higher education, compared to only 67 percent of young men.
But upon graduation, Libya’s women are falling through the vast gap between education and employment, with only 43 percent of women with higher education gaining official employment.
There are several reasons for this gap. Women’s abilities in the Libyan workplace have been underestimated, and traditional and religious barriers still exist, such as the mandatory order (mahram) for women to travel with a male guardian in some areas.
Women who do have jobs are frequently exploited with low salaries or environments that do not support working mothers.
However, the overwhelming obstacle for women in gaining employment has been the almost 10-year-old conflict in the country between groups vying for power since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
In 2016, Hanan Salah, Libya Researcher for Human Rights Watch, spoke with Al Jazeera about how the security situation affects working women: “Due to the complete lack of law and order in parts of Libya, various militias and individuals are taking matters into their own hands by trying to prohibit women from travelling on their own without a male companion,” she said.
Some militias have also harassed women on university campuses, she said, forcing some to stop their studies.
‘You Can Often Hear the Bombs Dropping Nearby’
Shadda El Magri is the 28-year-old co-founder of Deraz Corner, a creative hub in Tripoli with a co-working space where creative minds meet and entrepreneurs, freelancers, students, artists and architects can work together. Despite almost-daily air raids in the capital, Deraz Corner continues to operate.
“You can often hear the bombs dropping nearby and the streets are empty,” El Magri said. “I keep going to work, but I am one of the few that do. Any second the roads could be blocked.”
Last year, SPARK and Deraz Corner began providing “employment bootcamps” for young women and men in Tripoli, teaching employability skills to help them when applying for jobs.
The sessions offer workshops on CV writing, interview techniques and confidence building.
Basma Zoubi, a 22-year-old architecture student from Tripoli, attended the first bootcamp. “I was impressed with the project and it motivated me to start all the things I have been postponing,” she said.
Women like Basma aspire to have a stable job that they’re passionate about, but they face a number of obstacles to achieve their rights in Libya.
For Hala Bugaighis, of Jusoor, the motivation to channel her knowledge, skills and energy into empowering women was born of a tragedy.
In 2014, a relative of hers, the prominent Libyan human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis, was shot dead in her home in Benghazi.
“When my second cousin was assassinated for advocating for democracy, I was devastated,” Hala Bugaighis said. “Women were scared to talk about democracy or politics for fear that they would suffer the same fate.
Everything she believed in was vanishing to a very dark place, so I felt obliged to honour her work.”
A former business lawyer, she established Jusoor in 2015, and describes it as a “think and do tank.”
“In the first year we trained almost 40 women,” she said.
Three years later, SPARK and Jusoor teamed up to deliver important employment and entrepreneurship training to women. “We started giving vocational training, boosting tech and soft skills, and eventually providing internships and job placements for fresh graduates. To date, we have trained 200 Libyan women,” said Bugaighis.
Obstacles That Hinder Entrepreneurs
Sending highly skilled and ambitious women into the current business environment would only serve to frustrate them, however, so Jusoor also works to lobby for changes that businesses need.
Entrepreneurs wishing to start a business face many legal obstacles and high costs for registering a company (approximately $4,400).
For women, the main issue is access to finance.
Most Libyan banks require entrepreneurs to own land or property as collateral for a loan. However, it is still socially unacceptable for women to own land, even through inheritance.
Yet despite the odds, some Libyan women with businesses are battling through.
Hiba, a fashion designer supported by SPARK and Jusoor, is one of them. Hiring turned out to be one of the biggest challenges she faced. “You cannot convince a man to sit and use a sewing machine, so I had to look for women,” she said.
This was difficult because of social circumstances that many women face. Patriarchal aspects of Libyan culture, as well as religious and war-related restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, have sought to exclude women from the workplace.
Enas El’Bahri, who started a business in her home, creating cakes that look more like works of art, also had to overcome hiring difficulties.
As her business expanded, she had to hire foreign workers because Libyans were reluctant to join her private enterprise for fear of job insecurity.
Her company, Mozart Catering, now employs around 200 workers, only 20 percent of whom are Libyan.
Start-ups continue to face challenges as they grow, said Al-Missalati, of She Codes.
“Entrepreneurship is a new concept for Libyans in general, and we all need all guidance, mentorship, training and funding we can get for our teams. Without help, it’s still doable, but not on the same level, and it’s not going to have the same level of impact.”
Libyan Women Can Help Build Peace
Advocates of women’s empowerment in Libya also hope to see them take a greater role in the country’s politics. Women have been largely excluded from the peace process, to its detriment.
Despite playing a key role in the 2011 revolution and with research showing that peace processes involving women are 64 percent less likely to fail, women continue to be underrepresented.
In Libya, SPARK works exclusively with women-led, local organizations because they have unparalleled understanding of the cultural, economic and security context, as well as knowledge of the needs of young women building businesses and finding employment.
“One of our strengths is that we understand how to work during war,” said Bugaighis, of Jusoor. “We know when to stop and when to continue.” Such organizations are pioneers in their fields and their work is essential to normalize the presence of women in business environments and beyond.
Despite the ever-evolving political landscape and their lack of involvement in it, young women in Libya are now challenging the long-held resistance to their participation in many aspects of society, particularly in the economy, for the benefit of all Libyans.
Tarek Abd El-Galil contributed to this article.
This article was a collaborative effort between SPARK, a Dutch nongovernmental organization that focuses on creating jobs for young people in fragile states, and Al-Fanar Media.