TRIPOLI (Reuters) - About 100 Libyan women took to Tripoli’s streets on Saturday in a silent march to demand more support from the country’s new government for victims of rape during the eight-month war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
Their mouths covered with duct tape, women both young and old marched for an hour to Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib’s office and later met him to discuss their demands.
Wearing pink scarves and carrying banners that read “You are not alone,” the group, including mothers with young children and a handful of men, were flanked by Tripoli militiamen who acted as security guards as they handed out fliers.
“We as Libyan women have been hoping for so long for somebody to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Jalila Ouraieth, whose Tripoli-based NGO Phoenix organised the march, told Reuters.
“We have been waiting for prompt actions, for any sort of governmental or official support and so far we have been given nothing but silence. (The march) is to advocate for those who have no voice.”
While there have been allegations of rape used as a weapon during the fighting, it remains unclear how widespread violence against women was.
In March, Eman Al-Obaidi burst into a Tripoli hotel full of foreign media pleading for help, saying she had been gang-raped by pro-Gaddafi militiamen.
Rape is a highly sensitive issue in this Muslim country and is rarely discussed in public.
“The activists who have been trying to gather information about this, they’re estimating 8,000 cases,” Ouraeith said, adding the figure could rise due to the number of unreported cases. She said there were also reports of men being raped.
Outside Keib’s office, the group played a song by one rape victim about her ordeal, prompting many of the women to cry.
They were later allowed into the compound, and waited to speak with the prime minister after his first cabinet meeting since he named his new government on Tuesday.
Organisers said they handed him a letter calling for tougher sentences for those who commit rape as well as logistical and financial support for NGOs who help victims.
“He said the issue of rape victims is one of their priorities,” Phoenix co-founder Amira Alshokri said. “He said ‘Your demands make sense and will be addressed and the minister for social affairs will be responsible for this and you will be in touch with her when she starts her duty’.”
Organisers said there were simultaneous marches in other Libyan towns such as Benghazi, Misrata and Zawiyah, as well as a gathering of Libyans in the British city of Manchester. It was not immediately clear how many people attended those marches.
“We are seeking their help. They should give us the opportunity to talk about it, handle this issue,” said teacher Afaf Sedigh, who attended the march with her daughter and granddaughter. “You cannot keep something like this quiet.”
International Criminal Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said this month he may seek additional charges against Gaddafi’s former spy chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, and charge others suspected of involvement in hundreds of rapes in Libya during the conflict.
The Hague-based court has already indicted Senussi on charges of crimes against humanity and other war crimes.
Moreno-Ocampo also said he was close to completing an investigation into the use of rape by Gaddafi’s forces as they battled an eight-month insurgency.
Editing by David Cowell