‘Protective’ Facilities Serve as Places of Arbitrary Punishment
February 27, 2006
These facilities are far more punitive than protective. How can they be called shelters when most of the women and girls we interviewed told us they would escape if they could?
Farida Deif, Middle East and North Africa researcher for the Women’s Rights Division

The Libyan government is arbitrarily detaining women and girls indefinitely in “social rehabilitation” facilities, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Officially portrayed as protective homes for women and girls “vulnerable to engaging in moral misconduct,” these facilities are de facto prisons.

The 40-page report, “A Threat to Society? Arbitrary Detention of Women and Girls for ‘Social Rehabilitation,’” documents numerous and serious human rights abuses that women and girls suffer in these facilities. These include violations of their rights to liberty, freedom of movement, personal dignity, privacy and due process.

Libyan authorities are holding many women and girls in these facilities who have committed no crime, or who have completed a sentence. Some are there for no reason other than that they were raped, and are now ostracized for staining their families’ “honor.” Officials transferred the majority of these women and girls to these facilities against their will, while those who came voluntarily did so because no genuine shelters for victims of violence exist in Libya.

“These facilities are far more punitive than protective,” said Farida Deif, Middle East and North Africa researcher for the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “How can they be called shelters when most of the women and girls we interviewed told us they would escape if they could?”

“Social rehabilitation” facilities have a distinctly prison-like character. The women and girls sleep in locked quarters and are not allowed to leave the gates of the compound. The custodians sometimes subject them to long periods of solitary confinement, occasionally in handcuffs, for trivial reasons like “talking back.” They are tested for communicable diseases without their consent upon entry, and most are forced to endure invasive virginity examinations. Some residents are as young as 16, but authorities provide no education, except weekly religious instruction.

These women and girls have no opportunity to contest their confinement in a court of law, and typically have no legal representation. The exit requirements of “social rehabilitation” facilities are in themselves arbitrary and coercive. There is no way out unless a male relative takes custody of the woman or girl or she consents to marriage, often to a stranger who comes to the facility looking for a wife.

During meetings with Human Rights Watch in late January, the Libyan government promised to look into the abuses documented in the report. Aisha al-Qadhafi, daughter of Libyan leader Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi, also promised to investigate the matter. She presides over Wa’tassimu, a charity the government has charged with overseeing Tripoli’s “social rehabilitation” facilities. In late February, the managing director of the charity informed Human Rights Watch that the government just established a specialized council to study the conditions in all of Libya’s “social rehabilitation” facilities including examining the physical and psychological well-being of the women and children detained. It remains unclear who will be on the council and how it will function.

Human Rights Watch welcomes the establishment of the new council and calls on the council to investigate conditions in the centers first-hand and objectively document violations of Libyan law as a first step. Ultimately, the Libyan government should release all women and girls not serving criminal sentences who are nevertheless confined in these facilities and establish purely voluntary shelters for women and girls who are at risk of violence.

“Libya cannot use protection as an excuse to lock up women,” said Deif. “Women and girls who need protection from violence deserve genuine shelters, not punitive detention.”

Select testimonies from Libyan women held in the “social rehabilitation” homes featured in the report:

It is as if we’re criminals even though we didn’t do anything wrong.
— A woman held at the Social Welfare Home for Women in Tajoura, Tripoli, May 4.

A man raped me on the street on August 8, 2004... I went directly to the center in Tarhouna, because my brother would kill me if he found out. I went directly from the center to the social welfare home. The prosecutor called my parents. He told them my story. They visit me but they won’t officially receive me.
— A woman held at the Social Welfare Home for Women in Tajoura, Tripoli, May 4.

My mother died in a car crash when I was two. My father married a Moroccan woman. We didn’t understand each other. We had lots of problems. She’d hit and insult us. Eventually my father kicked me out. He gave me a ticket to visit my relatives. I worked in a restaurant. I made clean money. I didn’t smoke or take drugs. A year later, my father came to pick me up because people were talking. The prosecutor told me that I could either come here or go home with my father.
— A woman held at the Social Welfare Home for Women in Tajoura, Tripoli, May 4.