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(Tripoli) – Libyan authorities should seize a historic opportunity to promote and protect women’s rights as the country transitions from four decades of dictatorship, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The parliament, government, and other bodies should ensure that women can participate actively and equally in the drafting of the new constitution and the reform of legislation that affect their lives, Human Rights Watch said.

“Libyan women are at a pivotal moment in their country’s history with the drafting of a new constitution and the start of legislative reform,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “If Libya misses this opportunity to lay the legal foundation for women’s rights, it could lead to serious violations for years to come.”

The 40-page report, “A Revolution for All: Women’s Rights in the New Libya,” highlights key steps that Libya should take to meet its international obligations by firmly rejecting gender-based discrimination in both law and practice.

The report calls on Libya’s parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), to ensure that women are involved on equal terms with men in the entire constitution drafting process, including active participation in the Constituent Assembly tasked with preparing the draft.

“The revolution was an earthquake to the cultural status of women in Libya,” said Iman Bugaighis, a rights activist in Benghazi. “We don’t want to lose what we’ve gained as Libyan women.”

Her sister, Selwa Bugaighis, a lawyer, echoed this view: “We had never participated before in protests; these were taboo. The revolution made us proud to be there on the front line … But now there are some who think it is time for women to go home.”

The Constituent Assembly will be chosen by popular election, which is expected later in 2013. The GNC is currently preparing an election law for that election.

Women’s active participation in the Constituent Assembly is essential, Human Rights Watch said. This includes appointing a gender advisor to help ensure the draft constitution meets international standards of human rights.

Once drafting of the constitution begins, the Constituent Assembly should include explicit language that guarantees full equality between women and men. The constitution should make clear that its provisions on equality override any law, Human Rights Watch said.

The new constitution, which must be approved by popular referendum, should explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender, sex, pregnancy, and marital status, among other categories, Human Rights Watch said. Libya is party to the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women and other international instruments that require gender equality before the law. The government should also prioritize ending discrimination against women that is still pervasive in Libya and minimizing violence against women, including domestic violence.

The report urges the General National Congress and future parliaments to repeal or amend Gaddafi-era laws and regulations that subject women to discrimination and abuse. This includes discriminatory laws on gender-based violence, unequal personal status laws, and an ambiguous nationality law, as well as problematic articles in the penal code.

Libya’s current penal code, for example, classifies sexual violence as a “crime against a woman’s honor,” rather than against a woman as a victim or as a violation of her bodily integrity. Law No. 70 on dealing with adultery and fornication discourages victims of sexual assault from reporting crimes.

“Women’s rights activists in Libya said women have made gains over the past two years, playing an important role in public life,” said Gerntholtz. “But they have legitimate fears that women will lose ground as the country struggles to build its new legal and judicial institutions.”

Women played a key role in the anti-government protests that began in Benghazi in February 2011 and sparked the uprising that led to Gaddafi’s fall. They helped organize demonstrations, they documented human rights abuses, and they circulated information through social media. As the conflict intensified, Libyan women provided medical, logistical, and other support to opposition armed groups, including by smuggling ammunition and feeding fighters.

The 2012 parliamentary election, which saw voters elect 33 women to the 200-member General National Congress, marked a significant increase in female political participation. The electoral law included a gender parity provision requiring each party to place its female candidates in an alternating pattern with male candidates on their lists to ensure that women were elected.

Despite these gains, Libyan women continue to face significant challenges. In February 2013, Libya’s Supreme Court effectively lifted restrictions on polygamy. In April, the Ministry of Social Affairs reportedly suspended issuing marriage licenses for Libyan women marrying foreigners after Libya’s Grand Mufti called on the government to ban women from marrying foreigners.

“Libya’s enormous political changes have provided unprecedented opportunities to reshape women’s legal and social status,” Gerntholtz said. “But the gains made are incomplete and fragile. The time is now to expand and defend them with constitutional and legislative guarantees.”