Though several initial rounds of talks included no women in formal roles, up to 15 percent of the negotiators in UN-mediated discussions in December 2017 were women. An advisory board of twelve women continues to act as a third-party observer of the UN-mediated Geneva peace talks and successfully works across political lines to find consensus on controversial issues critical to stability, including aid delivery and the release of detainees.
Locally, women are leading efforts to negotiate cease-fires, organize nonviolent protests, police the streets, work in field hospitals and schools, distribute food and medicine, and document human rights violations.
This spring, the Syrian conflict will enter its eighth year, with over 400,000 people killed and 11 million displaced from their homes to date. The latest round of peace talks in January 2018, held in the Russian city of Sochi, crumbled after a previous round of unsuccessful United Nations-led talks. As the UN, Russia, the United States, and other nations pursue a political solution to end the Syrian war, they should invest in a strategy that has proven to make a deal more likely and more likely to last: the inclusion of women.
Syrian women have been underrepresented throughout the peace process. Although UN-led talks began in 2012, it was not until 2016 that Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, appointed an advisory board of twelve women leaders to participate as third party observers in the Geneva peace talks. Notably, the parallel Russian-led talks have mostly blocked women’s participation.
Women are also dramatically outnumbered in official roles in UN-led negotiations, comprising only 15 percent of the opposition and government delegations at the December 2017 talks in Geneva. The newly launched Syrian Women’s Political Movement is aiming for a 30 percent quota for women’s participation to ensure an inclusive conflict-resolution process that delivers justice for all Syrian war victims.
Although women have been underrepresented in formal peace processes in Syria, women have made valuable contributions to securing peace in local communities across the country. Here are five ways in which women have made a difference in Syrian peace efforts.
Broaden the agenda. Women at the negotiating table and in civil society have raised a number of issues critical to long-term peace and recovery, including delivery of aid and food, the release of detainees, inquiries into disappearances, and the effects of economic sanctions. In addition, the Syrian Civil Society Platform includes 50 percent women at the national level and works through local networks to advise negotiators on the situation on the ground.
Work across divides. With members drawn from across the political spectrum, the women’s advisory board has set an example for finding consensus on controversial issues that have stalled formal talks, including aid delivery and the release of detainees.
Negotiate local cease-fires. Syrian women have successfully negotiated cessation of hostilities between armed actors in several areas to allow the passage of aid. In the Damascus suburb of Zabadani, for example, a group of local women pressured a militia to accept a twenty-day cease-fire with regime forces. In another area, one activist recounted that when a group of armed fighters entered their village, “the men couldn’t go outside because they would have been shot or abducted. In the end, it was the women who surrounded the fighters and drove them out of the village.” Women in civil society groups have also organized nonviolent protests, worked in field hospitals and schools, and distributed food and medicine.
Secure the release of detainees. At the local level, women successfully advocated for the release of political prisoners through peaceful means: for example, in April 2011, the government heeded the demands of two thousand women and children who blocked a highway in Banias, resulting in the release of hundreds of men from neighboring villages who had been illegally rounded up.
Document human rights violations. A number of women and women’s groups report on kidnappings, detentions, disappearances, and other human rights violations by armed actors in Syria. These activists include the founders of the Violation Documentation Center, which was one of the first organizations to report attacks involving chemical weapons. These groups are providing critical data and analysis to international watchdogs and parties to negotiations.
Substantial evidence confirms that women’s participation in peace and security processes increases the likelihood and sustainability of peace. The United Nations, United States, and other stakeholders in Syria should ensure that Syrian women have a seat at the table and an opportunity to help bring an end to Syria’s war.
“As women we are responsible for making that connection between the ground and what’s happening at the table, [We translate] the messages that are coming from women on the ground, from civil society, to a political message to create policies that actually benefit all.” — Mariam Jalabi, founding member of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement and representative of the Syrian Opposition Coalition to the United Nations
- Direct representation at the negotiation table