Helping women and youth build peace in Libya

Hajer Sharief, Together We Build It. Credit: Kofi Annan Foundation

November marked the anniversaries of two landmark UN Security Council resolutions: resolution 2250 on youth, peace and security, and resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. Both recognise the vital role young people and women play in preventing and resolving conflict, countering violent extremism and building peace.

Geneva Solutions spoke to Hajer Sharief, a young leader for the Geneva-based Kofi Annan Foundation’s Extremely Together programme, which aims to counter violent extremism in young people, about her work to promote the resolutions. Sharief is the founder of Together We Build It organisation and the 1325 Network in Libya, which have been working on women, peace and security and empowering young people to play an active role in building peace in Libya since 2011.

Every Friday at 7pm while Hajer Sharief was growing up in Tripoli, Libya, her parents would hold “family democracy meetings” at their home. They’d sit down with her and her siblings to discuss current family affairs – everything from the children’s bedtime and the allocation of chores around the house, to what they would eat the following week.

Sharief and her brothers were expected to come to the meetings well-prepared with an agenda, and the children were encouraged to speak openly, allowed to criticise their parents, and play an active role in household decision-making.

Participation starts at home. Sharief credits these Friday consultations with teaching her the value of participating in decisions that affect your own life - whether related to politics, personal life, or, in the case of her home country Libya, rebuilding societies after conflict. ”If I have one personal experience that definitely shaped me, it would be our family democracy meetings,” Sharief explains over the phone to Geneva Solutions. “Because from a very early age I actually understood what decision-making is.”

When she boycotted the meetings for a brief period due to a disagreement, she found it frustrating not to have a voice on family matters.  It was far better to take part.

“My parents successfully brought this giant complex process that you usually see on TV between older men in suits that looks very complicated into our house, and made us understand that there was no difference between me, [a child of] five or six years, and that man sitting at the table.”

Revolution in Libya. When Sharief was 19, she witnessed her country descend into war, as fighting between foreign-backed groups and forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi erupted into the Libyan Revolution of February 2011. Armed conflict and unrest spread across Libya, reportedly leaving thousands dead, missing, or wounded.

A medical student at the time, Sharief volunteered at the local hospital to help treat the injured. “That is what really inspired me to start my activism and my work,” she says. “As someone who has experienced war and armed conflict, when it’s happening you get caught up in the moment and you don’t think a lot about how this extreme level of violence is going to affect the society moving forward.”

“My experience at the hospital during the revolution made me realise that we got it wrong by accepting we would have to have change through a war, rather than trying to push for the most peaceful solution possible, or a peaceful transition of power,” Sharief explains.

Putting her dreams of becoming a surgeon on hold, she decided to put her energy into rebuilding her country and advocating for an inclusive peace process that left nobody behind.

Women and peacebuilding. Libyan women were disproportionately affected by the war, bearing the brunt of the deteriorating economic situation and subjected to a rise in gender-based and sexual violence.  In 2011, the year of the Libyan Revolution, Sharief founded Together We Build It, an organisation that aims to empower women to play an active role in the peace process.

Both Together We Build It and the 1325 Network in Libya, which Sharief co-founded two years later, champion women’s roles in peacebuilding through promoting political participation, providing training in conflict prevention, and raising awareness around harmful gender norms. “We were trying to break this stereotype that the peace and security agenda is one that can only be tackled by senior men or men with guns,” she says.

The role of youth. Much of Sharief’s work in Libya also revolves around advocating for youth participation in peacebuilding. Growing up as a young woman under the Gadaffi regime, when civil liberties and freedom of speech were restricted, she was frustrated by the lack of opportunity for young people to be involved in political decision-making.

“I was interested in politics, I was interested in what was going on under the regime, but I was never really politically active because there was no form for you to become active,” says Sharief.

She recalls joining an underground organisation while in medical school and having to keep their meetings secret. “Whenever we had a meeting for the organisation we would be sitting in the classroom with our books in front of us, so in case anyone walks in we could make it look like a studying session,” she says.

Alongside her work with Together We Build It and the 1325 Network, Sharief is a member of the Kofi Annan Foundation’s Extremely Together programme, which aims to prevent violent extremism in youth. Led by 10 young people with expertise in peacebuilding, conflict, and counter-extremism in their own countries, the initiative aims to create a global movement to encourage fellow young people to promote peace, conducting extensive research, producing campaigns and reports, and advocating for policy changes.

Young people and extremism. Having witnessed the evolution of violent extremism and its pull on young people in her own country, Sharief’s perspective is invaluable. Around the time of the revolution, many of her classmates joined armed rebel groups, “whether for political reasons or for economic reasons or even for some sort of association or belonging,” she says. In the years that have followed, terrorist and violent extremist groups have become increasingly active in the country.

Although it would be misguided to oversimplify the pressures that push young people towards extremism, Sharief believes that, for many, it is the last resort when they feel they have nowhere else to go.

“There are many countries in situations like Libya where you have no formal mechanisms of political participation where you can [express] your ideology and your opinions peacefully,” she explains. “When you don't have these peaceful mechanisms to express yourself, then the last thing you could resort to is joining an armed group, for example, and using extreme violence, just because this is the last option you have.

“The only reason for someone to put themselves in such a situation is if they are hopeless, if you see that there is no other solution.”

One focus of the Extremely Together programme is understanding what pushes young people to extremism, with grassroots consultations both locally and online playing a key role.

“When it comes to any particular issue, you can never solve it unless you understand the ‘why’,” says Sharief. “Why are you doing this? Why are you joining this? Why do you think this is the last option you have? There is no one answer to these questions, and that's why having young people involved is the most important thing for policy and decision-makers. To actually listen to the people.”

The right to be heard. As Sharief herself witnessed growing up, it is essential for young people to know they have a voice. She believes that young people have become more politically engaged in recent years - most notably through social media. But this does not mean they are actively participating.

“The big question is whether this [trend] will translate into tangible outcomes on a political level, and I think that's not going to happen systematically, unless more and more young people start to participate in formal spaces,” she explains.

“In order for young people to be able to participate more, there are still systematic barriers in different countries around the world,” she says, giving the example of age restrictions to voting or taking political office, as well as younger people simply not being consulted in political and peace processes.

A long road ahead. Nine years since the Libyan revolution, Sharief says there is still a long way to go to ensure the voices of young people and women are heard. Although a formal peace agreement was reached in October, the situation remains extremely unstable, and Sharief says the process itself risks being unrepresentative of Libyan society as a whole.

“Women are already doing a lot of the work when it comes to local and national mediation [and] in non-formal spaces,” she explains. “The issue is that women are not included in the formal spaces where decision-making but also policymaking is taking place, so we end up with this huge gap between the political decisions and policy decisions, and between what's happening on the ground, where women are already playing an important role.”

Although change at the highest level seems a long way off, with Together We Build It and the 1325 Network, Sharief is working to promote women's participation on the ground, focusing on grassroots consultations with local groups to influence national and international decision-makers. Nearly a decade after the conflict erupted, what had been her immediate response to the violence she witnessed has grown into a mission that will continue long after the ink on the formal peace agreement has dried.

“If you ask me what my vision is for Libya, it’s definitely a long-term vision, and if you ask me what the solution is, it’s a long-term solution,” she says. “It should be comprehensive, it should be inclusive and, being very pragmatic and realistic, this takes a lot of time. But we need to start somewhere,” she says.

“This is our right, and we’re not going to stop until we have it.”