It’s International Women’s Day all around the world and more than ever in Tripoli

by Rima Hamidan and RNW Media

The voices of women are stronger than ever. From #MeToo and women’s rights campaigns to protests, the fight to call out gender based discrimination and violence and to influence communities and decision-makers is in full bloom! Nothing could be truer about Libya.

The women’s movement is not new to Libya, however. It is long established. Since the sixties educated women have been fighting for the right to inclusion and equality. What makes the current situation different is that Libya is starting to recover from years of political division, civil war and economic crisis, and women are at the forefront, demanding their right to realise their economic potential.

Soon women will no longer be the second sex in Libya’s workforce

Only about a quarter of the workforce in Libya is women, and 70% of those women are employed in the education sector, often as lifetime teachers. The remaining 30% have health sector or administrative jobs. Despite the lack of diversity in employment opportunities women face, many break stereotypes and inspire new generations of young women to choose a variety of professions. The first Asian food restaurant in Tripoli is owned by twenty-year-old Suhaila. Within months of opening the restaurant it became a hit. “My dream is now to open the first cooking school in Libya, so that women do not have to struggle as I did in setting up my own business and to be taken seriously,” says Chef Suhaila.

Empowerment through safe circles

In Tripoli, groups of working women can now meet in safe, discussion circles to address their realities, ambitions and challenges in the workplace and in the market. These circles have made it possible for members to exchange advice, experiences and sources of strength that can help them cope with professional and social pressures associated with their work.

The circles are sponsored by RNW Media’s Huna Libya project and Jusoor Center for Studies and Development and are part of the “You and Work” campaign. The content draws on the results of a recent survey conducted by Huna Libya. More than 6,100 young people participated in this survey, 78% of whom were women.  The “You and Work” campaign uses the learnings of the survey to further build awareness and educate the community on key issues that concern the rights of women in the workforce in Libya. The discussion sessions, facilitated by women with professional and legal experience, aim to identify and share sources of legal education and knowledge women can use at work.

The first three sessions covered legal awareness, life-work balance, and discrimination. Women discussed the importance of being aware of their legal rights in the workplace. They also shared their frustration regarding the social pressures they experience. The pursuit of balance becomes burdensome with a culture that dictates specific gender roles that place massive time management challenges on women. “Our presence today in this meeting in itself affirms that working women aspire to devote time to professionally developing themselves in the midst of their daily stress,” says Sarah Burkhez, a human resources professional and a mother of two children, one of the speakers in the project.

Libyan law stipulates the principle of gender equality and efficiency in employment. However, as the discussion revealed, women see themselves excluded from career development opportunities and see men systematically favoured. “When we demand our rights at work, we are often dealt with as trouble- makers, which sometimes makes us silent”, says Fatma Takrori, one of the participants.

“I have achieved my dream”

“The project made us aware of the extent of women’s knowledge gap in their labour rights, particularly in the private sector. This makes us accountable for improving the awareness and conditions of women in the workforce and to enable them to play their role in the development process,” said Hala Bugaigis. co-founder of Jusoor. To further educate women across Libya, the (#عقبالك) (Ogbalik in Arabic) online campaign will also kick off alongside the project. Breaking the stereotypical imagery, while celebrating women’s aspirations, will be at the forefront along with several global campaigns on this International Women’s Day.

You may ask yourself why “Ogbalik”? “Ogbalik” is a common term used to congratulate guests at weddings and happy occasions. This word, steeped in Libyan tradition, is usually shared between women celebrating at weddings, engagement parties and baby showers. It means, “I have achieved my dream, I hope you do so too.” The campaign carries over this spirit to celebrate the successes of women working in professions that break stereotypical gender moulds. This, along with the dialogue circles, aims to inspire new generations to keep fighting for a better future for women, and as a result the whole of society.

The Ogbalik campaign will conclude on 14 March 2019, with an event organised by Huna Libya, Jusoor and the Dutch embassy in Tripoli. The event will showcase projects that support the advancement of women in the workplace and working papers on the challenges and successes of working Libyan women.