The Libyan Crisis refers to the ongoing civil war in the country since 2011. This civil war has hit Libya like a tsunami that reshaped the society, drastically disrupted people’s daily lives and ruined state–society relations. In addition, it has negatively impacted the relationship between Libya and other countries, to the extent that some countries have imposed travel bans and restricted the movement of Libyan nationals, including peace builders and women mediators.
The conflict dynamic is changing rapidly and consequently it forces people to depart from their steady daily routine. As a woman mediator, like many other human rights defenders and leaders of women’s organisations, my experience during this war has been marked by challenges and security risks. Despite operating in such a volatile environment and amidst growing uncertainties, I have developed resilience, and continued “working hard but smart” to safely uphold my mission as a mediator and as the director of a women’s organisation called Together We Build It (TWBI).
In 2014 the outbreak of a nasty war in Tripoli – the capital city – resulted in a setback in the work of civil society, and as a result many activists and women politicians have fled the country. In this context, I felt the responsibility to mitigate the damage, and together with the board of my organisation, we held ourselves accountable for keeping members of TWBI safe by further reinforcing the special measures we had been taking for the past five years. Interestingly, these special measures are very similar to the current measures introduced by governments during the COVID-19 crisis. For example, we have been confined to our homes for days or weeks, and have transferred our work to home offices. Furthermore, we have held many virtual meetings and moved to online activities, such as online trainings. Many situations experienced during the lockdown are similar to what we have been through because of armed conflict.
On a personal note, I recognise a similarity between the COVID-19 crisis and the Libyan crisis since both of them have been a strong disruptor of people’s lives and have further exposed the lack of good governance in Libya that has contributed to high levels of corruption and the destruction of infrastructures. In a country like Libya where the health system has almost entirely collapsed, it has become a great challenge to provide services to COVID-19 patients. However, for many Libyans the pandemic is an invisible enemy compared to a rocket that can hit them any time. Accordingly, they are not considering the risks of COVID-19 infection and all they want is to learn how to live with the virus until a vaccine is found. However, I strongly believe that the COVID-19 crisis will increase the suffering of the most vulnerable groups of women, such as internally displaced women and girls, women experiencing sexual and gender-based violence and refugees. All in all, the COVID-19 crisis has multiplied the challenges I am facing, which were already great as a result of nine years of civil war. One of the biggest lessons I have learnt is that human security (for example health care), the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and the COVID-19 crisis are greatly interlinked, and since women are very much related to these three elements, attention should be payed to women mediators and peace builders at different levels – local, national and even international.
Humanitarian work in war-torn countries, of which Syria is no exception, is all about human interaction. It is about people in need receiving the necessary assistance at the right time and in a dignified manner. COVID-19, and the related restrictive measures that have been implemented globally to cope with it, have created new barriers and obstacles for that to happen, and have rendered dialogue between power holders and humanitarian workers, which took place the most through face-to-face interaction, fragmented and significantly less interactive. This period has definitely marked many humanitarian workers, and I am no exception to that, but while rendering more and more complex the work that we carry out in the country, it has also represented a bonding factor across gender, age and type of profession.
In my line of work fears linked to the pandemic, restrictions, gradual loss of physical interaction, uncertainties regarding the immediate and longer-term future, worries about family and friends have applied equally to men and women, fostering a degree of solidarity and sense of urgency that I have hardly experienced before. In turn, these very fears, worries and frustrations have brought in the open the vulnerabilities of human beings beyond their titles, status and position, and their being entrenched in conflict and misunderstanding among themselves. The dismantling of constructed categories, including gender, due to COVID-19, has represented an opportunity for many women mediators like me to push the boundaries of what was deemed impossible, by proving through example that it is indeed possible. It has been possible to keep working, even under deep restrictions and increased family duties, to keep healthy, to keep delivering and most importantly to keep interacting using all possible means available. The real challenge will be to capitalise on this sense of bonding and solidarity when and if the situation normalises, and to keep it at the centre of human interactions in the time to come.
We have lived in a geographically de-facto divided Cyprus since the last round of violence in 1974. Nationalism, militarism and patriarchy dominate our daily lives in what can be described as a frozen conflict where there is neither war nor peace. As women mediators and activists we have to reckon with multiple divisions between the two communities daily. With regard to the immediate response to the health crisis, we have been lucky enough in that our leaders and authorities from both sides immediately took the necessary measures and imposed lockdown early on at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cyprus has recently started exiting from the virus crisis and the strict measures imposed are being relaxed. During the lockdown and isolation, Cyprus has also experienced an increase in domestic violence similar to that observed globally. Data from women’s NGOs and civil society organisations working in both communities report that during the lockdown, incidents of domestic violence increased by 58% from mid-March till the third week of April 2020 in the Greek Cypriot community, while in the Turkish Cypriot community complaints received are over two and a half times that of the same period in 2019.
Inevitably, there has also been a significant negative impact on the economy with rising unemployment and much uncertainty. The logical and desired consequence would be that the two sides urgently resume high-level peace negotiations for a political solution to reunify the island and enable Cypriots to benefit from cooperation and interdependence. Our challenge is to advocate the meaningful inclusion of women in high-level peace processes. Instead, conditions have deteriorated with the closure of the check-points since mid-March preventing the movement of labour, students and goods across the island.
As women mediators we support the opening of the crossing points as soon as possible because we believe that direct contacts between the communities, such as trade and employment opportunities, can contribute to building trust and a culture of peace that are so essential for the infrastructure of the final solution to the conflict. We also welcome the high-level cooperation between our respective leaders, Mr N. Anastasiades and Mr M. Akinci, on issues of health and incidents of fire outbreaks in the North. There has been some welcome cooperation between the members of the Bicommunal Technical Committee on Health as well as other technical committees such as the one on Gender Equality, Cultural Heritage, the Environment. This trend should be further reinforced.
As MWMN/Cyprus we have continued to hold virtual meetings and to develop projects with the support of the Italian MFA and the Network Secretariat. We are now ready to launch two activities, both of which will be implemented online. The former will be focused on enlarging the mediators’ current team and building a plan of action for future steps. The latter will be devoted to collecting and sharing experiences with a broad range of women about the conflict, and to developing ideas on how to better integrate the gender perspective and women’s engagement in the post-COVID-19 period utilising the WPS agenda.
COVID-19 has had a profound effect on our lives, in any possible aspect – quoting a popular tune by R.E.M., “it’s the end of the world as we know it”. The Earth will continue to circle the sun and people will be born and live and pass away, love, kindness and morals will still guide our lives, I hope, but the way we conduct international relationships, diplomacy and business will have to change. We are living in turbulent times and it seems that uncertainty is going to play a central role in the coming years.
Peace making and conflict resolution require complex solutions, based on leadership, courage and creativity, trust, goodwill and cooperation, which are the building blocks of any successful process. COVID-19 has hit all the countries in the Mediterranean, socially, economically and politically. At the beginning, every country isolated itself, trying to tame the infection. The closed borders were an indication of the emergence of the current “Zeitgeist”, which is characterised by enhanced nationalism and self-concentration, dealing with the growing threat. As governments, as well as the public, were swept into the pandemic turmoil, everything else was silenced. Unfortunately, that is still true: as our leaders are struggling to contain the disease and its vast implications, there seems to be very little attention or even appreciation for any other topic.
At the same time, as COVID-19 became the first national priority, in many Mediterranean countries men took over even more leadership positions to deal with the crisis. In the framework of the MWMN and of other fora, we constantly discuss the need to implement UN Resolution 1325 and include more women in peace negotiations, yet the spirit and the essence of this resolution, to me, is the need to have women at the forefront, where national decisions are taken. They should take their place at the table, whatever the crisis topic is – war and peace, economic recession or the spread of a pandemic. Unfortunately, in most countries, men have been dominating the COVID-19 responses at the national level. Women do indeed play a key role in the medical field, yet the very qualities they bring to the negotiation table, such as collaborative leadership, ability to work with multifaceted approaches and enhanced sensitivity, are essential for a successful response to this specific type of challenge. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand has set an important example and has become the role model for sound and effective leadership. We should all learn from her and from the New Zealanders, who have made the best choice, as proven in former crises and most definitely now.
That is the true spirit of UNSCR 1325. Let us all hope that when we finally emerge from these difficult times, the battle from women’s place at the national decision-making table, not to mention at the steering wheel, will have become a historical achievement.