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PEACEMAKERS

Can the World’s Women Save Syria?

Female negotiators have won a place at the table in Syria’s peace talks. On the ground, they’re doing even more, from setting up schools to negotiating cease-fires.

She is known only as “Delegate Three” and her remarks to the world were simple.

“If your countries are keen on achieving peace in Syria,” she said to the United Nations Security Council during a closed session last month known as an Arria Formula meeting, “then they must know that this cannot be done without women and that we cannot be excluded from determining the future of our country.”

During the past few months, a chorus of international voices, have joined Delegate Three in seeking to insure that the latest efforts to end the Syrian conflict do not exclude the interests and unique perspectives of half the population. Petitions from around the world – in meetings convened by UN Women and international organizations, in statements from member states and top diplomats, and Delegate Three’s own appeal, made just days before the UN-brokered talks were set to open between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces – have apparently not fallen on deaf ears.

According to Coalition sources and The Institute for Inclusive Security, an organization that works to increase the participation of women in peace processes, several women participated in the first two rounds of talks in Montreux, Switzerland, which began last month. Originally, two negotiators on the Coalition side and on the regime side were women. A third woman joined the Coalition negotiators in the second round. Five of the Coalition’s technical team were also women and one advisor to the Coalition’s negotiators was a woman.

In the first round of talks, there were nine total negotiators on both sides, and for the Coalition, 14 technical team members as well as four advisors to the negotiators. It’s unclear if those numbers stayed exactly the same in the second round. Most of the female participants continued in their roles last week and are expected to do so again if and when the talks resume. No date has been set to resume negotiations.

But is it enough? Is this the full participation Delegate Three and others were hoping for?

“It’s never enough. It’s not half,” said Mariam Jalabi, director of the Coalition Office to the United Nations. She has been vocal about the need to increase the group’s female representation at the highest levels since she joined the Coalition last year. “Women should be 50 percent of all negotiations. It’s not enough, but for us, we feel that considering where world politics are, where women’s representation is worldwide, we're moving forward.”

“I do feel that their presence has been giving more legitimacy and more power to the delegation in general,” continued Jalabi, who is based in New York. “And it’s making it a given for the Syrian people that women are present at decision-making levels.”

Kristin Williams, a writer and program associate at the Institute for Inclusive Security, wrote a report released last month detailing the responses of 110 Syrian women to survey questions about the peace process. She called the women’s inclusion a promising start but said there should be a mechanism enabling women working within Syria and directly experiencing the conflict to feed information up to the international level discussions.

“It’s a good first step, but there needs to be more,” she said. “It’s clear from the survey that women inside Syria, women who are very active in the local councils and in civil society movements within Syria, do not feel engaged by the international community on these efforts around the peace talks.” 

Since conflict erupted in Syria three years ago, more than 100,000 people have been killed, and millions – mostly women and children – have been displaced. As in most modern wars, Syrian civilians have disproportionally born the brunt of the violence engulfing this battered and bloodied nation. According to advocates with connections on the ground there, many women are now heading up households and trying to provide financially for their families, establishing schools for children whose government schools have closed, coordinating humanitarian aid for their communities, documenting human rights abuses, organizing non-violent protests, and even brokering local peace deals as the war rages on around them.

“It’s clear from the survey that women inside Syria, women who are very active in the local councils and in civil society movements within Syria, do not feel engaged by the international community on these efforts around the peace talks.” 

Like women in Bosnia, Rwanda, Colombia and elsewhere, Syrian women’s experiences of the conflict are different from men, especially those with guns who so often end up taking all the seats at peace tables. This difference means that women’s inclusion not only can change the dynamic between the negotiating parties, but the content of the conversation as well.

Although the Syrian peace process has mostly stalemated, women on the Coalition team led the negotiations around humanitarian access and detainee releases, Jalabi said, among the few topics actually on the table.

Rafif Jouejati, who served as a Coalition spokesperson in Switzerland last month, has, like Jalabi, urged the group’s leadership to insure women’s participation. She felt the women negotiators did substantively impact the talks in January by highlighting civilians and the dire humanitarian situation.

“It’s not just about the military escalation,” said Jouejati, who also serves as spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees in Syria and director of the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria, both civil society organizations. “And a lot of people very often forget that in between different warring parties there is a civilian population to consider.”

Madeleine Rees, secretary general of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, said women often bring an otherwise absent gender analysis to negotiations. Such a perspective translates into better meeting the rights and needs of the entire population, not just carving up political power between combatants. A gendered analysis of humanitarian aid, for example, might mean including baby formula, fresh water, and sanitary napkins.

On the Institute for Inclusive Security’s survey Syrian women said they bring topics to peace talks like illiteracy, household and family needs, infrastructure, mobilizing public support for peace, equality of work, women’s political participation and gender-based violence. They also mentioned more traditional elements of peace accords like demobilization and constitutional and legal reform.

Yet it’s not just because women have insights on problems affecting them that they should be included in peace building, said Steven Heydemann, director of the Syria program at the United States Institute of Peace.

“It is critical, not only because they are smart and have a lot to offer, but it is a demonstration to everyone who’s watching the negotiations about the commitment of the opposition to the importance of the participation of women in shaping Syria’s future,” he said. “It isn’t only when women’s issues are on the agenda that it’s important to have women at the table.”

In addition to the practical reasons for women’s inclusion, their right to participation has been enshrined in the UN’s legal framework as laid out in a series of binding Security Council Resolutions. The most recent such Resolution, 2122, was passed in October and specifically aims to strengthen women’s roles in all stages of conflict prevention and resolution. It builds on the seminal Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, which first called for women’s equal participation in peace building and placed women at the heart of the international peace and security agenda. A letter from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon sent to the Syrian government and the opposition inviting them to the Swiss talks cited Resolution 1325 and the need for women’s representation.

Research has also shown that inclusive peace agreements are more likely to succeed. A 2012 study found that when a combination of civil society actors (where women are frequently involved) and political parties are included in peace deals, the risk of the overall peace breaking down falls by 60 percent. The finding is instructive given that one in five peace deals signed in the last decade has failed, according to the Institute for Inclusive Security.

Nevertheless, inclusivity remains the exception. Out of the 14 UN-sponsored peace negotiations held in 2011, only four women participated on negotiation teams in Cyprus, Georgia, Guyana and Yemen, according to UN Women.

The filmmaker Abigail Disney who produced the 2011 PBS series Women, War and Peace, including the award-winning documentary Pray The Devil Back to Hell, said women’s routine exclusion comes from a long history of political and social marginalization and a deep resistance to changing gender dynamics.

“So it’s going to be a long, slow, process, one light bulb over the head at a time,” she said. “And we all have to be willing to fight this fight all of our lives because it will probably happen after we’re gone.

Some Syrian women have been concerned not just about how many of them are seated at the table, but in what capacity. Rajaa Altalli, co-founder and co-director for Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria, said she wanted to see a third independent party to the negotiations made up of civil society actors, especially women. A key focus of her organization’s work is empowering women to become decision-makers and to play key roles in the country’s transitional process.

But under the current structure of the talks, as determined by the mediator, UN-Arab League Special Envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, only the opposition and the government have been invited to the negotiations. So if women participate, it’s with one of those sides.

Yet “politicians,” said Altalli, who is currently living in Turkey for security reasons, “don’t always reflect the interests of the people.

“This is why we are talking about a gender advisor for the UN, maybe a gender advisor for each delegation,” she continued, “and this is why you need also a third party.”

Jalabi, from the Coalition, doesn’t object to the current format because she said the women negotiators have strong connections to constituencies on the ground and thus bring their team credibility. One of the three women is Noura al-Ameer, who was imprisoned for six months in 2012, suffering torture by electric shock. At 26 she is the youngest delegate, and is particularly connected to Syrian youth. Her colleagues are Suhair Atassi, a prominent activist who USA Today called “likely the most powerful woman in Syria despite the fact the she is living in exile,” and Rima Fleihan, a playwright, activist and civil society leader.

Still, Jalabi ultimately wants to see a women’s presence in the peace process that is more representative of Syria’s diversity. Of the eight women participating on the Coalition delegation, she said just one, al-Ameer, is veiled.

While most activists and advocates say it’s an achievement for women to have made it to the Syrian peace table even in small numbers, none are satisfied. To build a stable, free and democratic Syria, they say women must continue to push for more inclusion. According to experts that’s a minimum of 25 to 40 percent representation. They say women need to be present in these numbers in the ongoing negotiations, they need to be part of the transitional government, they need to be on the team drafting the country’s new constitution and laws, and they need to remain active in rebuilding Syria’s future.

“I think if the goal is to achieve a democratic state in which all citizens are equal then we need the active participation of as many of all citizens as possible,” Jouejati said. “And I think we cannot afford to marginalize any group, let alone more than half the population.”

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