Syrian Women: Present in the War, Absent in the Peace?

In March 2011, the protests that swept through the Middle East during the Arab Spring spread to Syria, sparked by the arrest and torture of fourteen schoolchildren who wrote the popular Arab Spring slogan ‘The people want the downfall of the regime’ on their school walls.  They did so after their teacher was arrested for expressing her hope that revolution would come to Syria.

When the protests began in Syrian towns and cities, women marched alongside men in the streets, often in equal numbers, calling for an end to the Assad regime and for genuine progressive change in Syrian society.  They led sit-ins demanding the fair release of prisoners unfairly jailed by the regime, they set up committees and groups that met, organised and protested independently, and they worked to encourage more men to participate in the uprising.  Some men have said that it was the fact that women kept going into the streets and protesting, despite the dangers it entailed, that motivated them to do so too.

As the crisis deepened into a civil war, women responded to the human impact of the regime’s crackdown, caring for and providing food to the displaced and nursing the wounded. They joined the opposition armed forces, and have been involved in everything from cooking for and delivering supplies to the rebels, to fighting on the frontline alongside their male counterparts, working as snipers in Aleppo, and running military operations themselves.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has estimated that around 5000 revolutionary women are involved in military combat and logistics.  On the other side of the battlements, a 500 strong women-only battalion named the ‘Lionesses for National Defence’ has been established within Assad’s National Defence Force.

During this war, rape and sexual violence has been the most common form of violence experienced by women and girls, and when women have fled the country, they have faced increased rates of intimate partner violence, forced early marriage and ‘survival sex’ in refugee camps.

And against this backdrop, women have been working for peace, through groups like Building the Syrian State, one of the first opposition groups in Syria which was co-founded by a woman, and the Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace, which brings together women from all parts of Syrian society to ensure women’s inclusion in decision-making, policy-making and responding to issues of women’s security in the war.  These and other civil society groups have done important caucusing and peacebuilding work to build the constituency for peace within Syria, to bring people together across political and conflict lines, and develop priorities and principles around inclusivity, justice, grassroots engagement, and post-war reconstruction on which that peace can be built.

However, despite the varied and important roles women have played in the uprising and the war, despite their particular experiences of violence, humiliation, and displacement, and despite their role in peacebuilding, they have been virtually absent from the formal Syrian peace process.  Women were absent from all

Syrian Women Activists speak at UN Women Press Conference. Photo by UN Women, retrieved from Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Syrian Women Activists speak at UN Women Press Conference. Photo by UN Women, retrieved from Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

delegations to the peace negotiations, including the UN delegation, until significant international pressure meant that a number of women were added at the last minute to the government and opposition delegations to the Geneva II talks in January 2014, although none had speaking roles.  In fact it took months of activism by Syrian and international women’s groups to convince the lead UN-Arab League negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, of the importance of including women in the peace process.  In early January 2014, he walked out of an event in Geneva at which Syrian women shared their perspectives on the roles women were playing in the country, including in negotiating local truces, alleviating suffering, and building a road to peace, and it took months of lobbying before he agreed to include a gender advisor on his staff despite the clear gender dimensions of the war.

The exclusion of women’s voices and perspectives from peace processes is not unique to the Syrian peace process.  Women’s participation in peace negotiation delegations between 1992 and 2012 averaged at around 9 percent in the cases surveyed by a 2012 UN Women investigation, and only 4 percent of the signatories to peace agreements were women.  Women were absent from the chief-mediating roles in UN-brokered talks during the same period. Perhaps more strikingly, there has been little appreciable increase in women’s participation since the landmark UNSC Resolution 1325 mandated the inclusion of women at all levels of decision-making and peace processes in October 2000.

This suggests that peace processes are still largely seen as a space in which the men with guns negotiate the conditions under which they will put their guns down.  While the security aspect of peace processes is undeniably important, it goes hand in hand with negotiations around the shape a post-war state and society will take: how governance and political competition will be organised, whether justice for war-time crimes will be pursued, how different groups will be ascribed rights and responsibilities under a post-war constitution, how reconstruction and reconciliation will be pursued, and so on.

Excluding women from these discussions results in the establishment of post-war political and social structures that further disenfranchise women, and ignores their roles as agents of social and political change.  This not only constitutes an unjust foundation for a post-conflict society, but weakens peace settlements by making them reflect the interests and concerns of only a small segment of the population at the expense of the wider cross-section of society, which includes not only women, but also minority groups.

In contrast, when peace negotiations have included women, the range of issues brought to the table has been broader, and traditional security concerns have been addressed in tandem with issues around health, education, nutrition, gender, disability, childcare and human security.  As a result, it is not just the men with guns whose interests, experiences and concerns are reflected in the peace agreement: it has a much broader relevance to the society at hand.  We don’t yet know if these peace processes have been more successful, but we do know that they have been fairer, more inclusive processes of social and political negotiation.

At a time when civil wars, and civil war resurgence, are some of the most prominent global security threats and causes of human suffering, environmental degradation and the spread of disease, a central concern for the international community must be the fairness and durability of the peace that results from the Syrian peace process.  The continued marginalisation of women from that process may weaken the final outcome of negotiations, and will send a strong message to the women of Syria, and the world, that international policymakers and peacemakers do not value women’s contributions to peace, civil society, and political processes, and do not recognise women as political actors within civil war contexts.

It will also send a strong message that states, and statesmen, are willing to make powerful statements at the United Nations about the importance of including women in peace processes, but remain unwilling to do more than pay lip service to the principles of gender equality in practice.

Jasmine-Kim Westendorf, La Trobe University