Rape in Libya: The Crime That Dare Not Speak Its Name


A Ministry of Information official with Iman al-Obeidi in Tripoli on March 15, 2011

The female doctors at one of the larger hospitals here can tell you stories – of corpses of violated women stripped and strewn on the streets of frontline Ajdabiya; of the women afraid to leave their homes in Brega; of the 13-year-old Misratah girl gang-raped by soldiers who burst into the family’s living room, forcing her father to watch. “She kept screaming,” one doctor says. “Just screaming and screaming, ‘Daddy, don’t look!’ “

The doctors, who are in their mid-20s, are stationed in the emergency room of one of this rebel stronghold’s most sophisticated hospitals. They talk for hours about the rape of women. But it’s only stories. They have never met a victim.(See photos of the battle for Libya.)

The medics don’t deny that others in the hospital may have treated rape victims. But they say the stigma of sexual assault runs so deep in Libyan culture that the raped are virtually forced into social exile, unable to wed, a humiliation to their entire family, choosing to remain silent rather than to give voice to the crime they have suffered. “We hear these stories all the time. From our friends, from our neighbors,” one doctor says. “They are passed along every day. But the women are too scared to come forward themselves.” The number of stories whispered in the halls of this hospital has increased exponentially since the start of Libya’s civil conflict.

On June 8 in New York City, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), said there were indications that Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had ordered the rape of hundreds of women during his violent crackdown on the rebels and that he had even provided his soldiers with Viagra to stimulate the potential for attacks. The ICC will most likely add rape to the list of war-crime charges already levied against Gaddafi. Rape, Moreno-Ocampo told reporters, is a new weapon for Libya’s regime. “We had doubts at the beginning,” he said, “but now we are more convinced. Apparently, [he] decided to punish, using rape.”(See Italy’s troubling immigration deal with Gaddafi.)

The ICC’s announcement was a turning point in the fight to document the incidence of rape in the war-torn North African country. Since the beginning of the uprising against Gaddafi, rumors of its use as military policy have circulated. But journalists and aid organizations have so far struggled to document the alleged phenomenon, relying on secondhand information from doctors who claim to have met and treated patients but do not have patients’ permission to reveal their identities. “We never thought we’d see this traumatic rape going on during this war,” says Dr. Laila Bugaighis, a women’s physician at the Benghazi Medical Center, who says she sees at least one rape victim per day. “It’s been a shock, and it’s keeping these women afraid. They’re trying to hide out and push away anyone [media and rights workers] who’s seeking any information.” But without victims’ testimony, it is impossible to accurately document the true scope of the problem.

“The key question right now is the extent to which this violence is being perpetrated by [Gaddafi] forces and how much is civilian men taking advantage of the breakdown in law and order,” says Liesel Gerntholtz, women’s-rights director at Human Rights Watch. “I would question how pervasive it is and whether it is in fact a Gaddafi policy because we just don’t know. There’s been enough evidence in the media, and we’ve tracked a lot of claims on Twitter and social-media pages, that I believe there is something to be concerned about. There’s definitely been sexual violence. But we’re not in a position to make any claims about the extent of it or who’s doing it.”

So far, the only Libyan woman to go on record about her assault has been Iman al-Obeidi, who in March burst into Tripoli’s Rix Hotel to tell foreign journalists she had been gang-raped by Gaddafi’s forces. Though aid workers had hoped she might open the floodgates for other women to come forward, none have. (Al-Obeidi is now in Romania, seeking refugee status.) “The allegations are frequent and serious,” says Sidney Kwiram, Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch, who says that in more than two months on the ground she was unable to find one woman who would speak on the record. “Research on rape is often challenging due to the shame and taboo, not just for the woman but for the whole family. It is particularly difficult in Libya because of the conservative nature of the society and the hyperpoliticized environment we are operating in.”(See “The Rape of Iman al-Obeidi: The Libyan Regime’s Other Crisis”)

Another disincentive is the lack of protection for any woman who comes forward as a victim. Benghazi’s checkpoints are patrolled by untrained vigilantes wielding duct-taped guns. Harassment and assault happen regularly on the city’s main streets, in daylight. Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s crisis researcher, points to security concerns expressed by al-Obeidi, who despite a modicum of protection due to international attention “had a well-founded fear of persecution.” In Benghazi, Bugaighis says the women she treats for postrape psychological and physical trauma beg her to keep their identities secret. “For them, the implications of rape are that they may not be able to fit back into society – the fear of this happening to them is what’s keeping them from talking.”

Documented attacks on migrant women, especially those from sub-Saharan Africa, have shed some light on what could be happening to their Libyan counterparts. Rovera says she heard testimony from non-Libyan females “who were subjected to rape and kidnapping and were being held for ransom, and other things that were happening with impunity.” Then al-Obeidi arrived at the Rix Hotel, and the focus “changed. We were now talking about a Libyan national. And that’s an element that we were certainly less aware of before.”(See photos of rebels training in Libya.)

In light of the ICC’s decision, international attention looks set to grow, as does speculation on the number of victims. So far it is impossible to know, though the ICC said June 9 that the figure was in the hundreds. “The number of rape victims will shock everyone when it comes out,” Dr. Bugaighis says.

But rights workers who have spent substantial time on the ground chasing leads maintain that while they remain aware of the assault rumors, the key objective going forward will be to get Libyan victims to share their stories. In three months in Libya, Rovera didn’t meet one woman who said she had been raped. “Normally the situation is the reverse – you don’t get many people to focus on it in society, but you can get the victims to talk,” she says. “Here everyone’s talking about it, but despite our best efforts, we’ve not been able to meet a single victim.”


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