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. In January 2018, Russia convened the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, in which women constituted 15 percent of party delegates. In October 2019, when the UN-facilitated Syrian Constitutional Committee met in Geneva, women made up 28 percent of delegates. A Women’s Advisory Board continues to consult with the UN special envoy for Syria 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 have led 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.
The Syrian conflict has ravaged the country since 2011, with over 400,000 people killed and 11 million displaced from their homes. Protests against President Bashar al-Assad quickly turned into a war between the government and rebel groups. Civilians have been targeted in brutal attacks that amount to war crimes, and the Assad regime has denied UN convoys access to rebel-held areas for the distribution of medicine and food. Military intervention by several outside parties has further prolonged the conflict, particularly as the self-proclaimed Islamic State expanded from Iraq into Syria. Multiple rounds of talks since 2012 in Geneva, Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), and Sochi have resulted in multiple cease-fire agreements but failed to resolve the conflict. As efforts shifted to drafting a new constitution, the United Nations hosted the first meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in 2019.
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, composing only 15 percent of the opposition and government delegations at the December 2017 talks in Geneva. The 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. In January 2018. Russia convened the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, in which women constituted 15 percent of party delegates. When the Syrian Constitutional Committee convened in Geneva in 2019 under the auspices of the United Nations, women made up 28 percent of the total 150 delegates representing the Syrian government, the opposition, and civil society.
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. Women have made a difference in Syrian peace efforts in five ways.
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 lines. 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 Banias, the government heeded the demands of two thousand women and children who blocked a highway, resulting in the release of hundreds of men from neighboring villages who had been illegally rounded up. 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.”
Do the work local governments should do. Women in civil society groups have also worked in field hospitals and schools, distributed food and medicine, and organized nonviolent protests. In one opposition-held city, women have formed an all-female police brigade that has access to areas that their male counterparts do not and provides families with critical services.
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.
“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