Recognizing that women in the Middle East and North Africa must play an active role in their countries’ political processes, especially amid the regional backdrop of upheavals and conflicts, the Netherlands government is providing money for a new program, Women on the Frontline, to help women-run initiatives organize themselves better to assert their rights to equal civic participation.
One such prominent effort is a push for the participation of Syrian women’s groups in the Geneva II peace negotiations between President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition, scheduled by the United Nations for Jan. 22. Achieving that goal is shared by a global network of women’s groups representing thousands of activists, but they are meeting tough resistance.
Some of the groups not only want women included in official representative parties but also as an entity of their own, an unprecedented move that reflects the increasing frustration felt by women’s organizations that despite the internationally laws mandating women’s place at high-level peace talks, they remain excluded from the table.
The Dutch program, which includes an international development organization, Hivos, has 5.8 million euros (about $7.9 million) to invest in young women’s groups formed just before or during the national “transitions” in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region, said Jetteke van der Schatte Olivier, the manager for Women on the Frontline at Hivos, based in The Hague. The program was announced earlier this year by Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch minister for foreign trade and development cooperation.
Besides working with three Syrian organizations, the program aims to assist women’s groups in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. The groups can use the money to learn how to be lobbyists, understand lawmaking and financial management and, most important, pick a campaign and carry it out.
The goal to usher women into Geneva II is the most urgent and visible effort going. Numerous groups besides the Dutch are trying hard to make it happen, although the talks themselves may be vulnerable to cancellation. Lakhdar Brahimi, the special envoy for the UN and the Arab League on Syria, has been working since August 2012 to gather the Syrian government and the opposition together to end the civil war that began in March 2011.
The UN announced the January date last month, but it is already meeting challenges. It is unclear, for example, who is even attending the conference, although a spokeswoman for Brahimi said that more precise information on attendance may be ready by Dec. 27.
The movement to ensure women’s participation in the negotiations — if they happen — is based on Resolution 1325 and supporting resolutions, including one adopted by the Security Council in October. That document lays out steps for carrying out UN commitments on women, peace and security, like deploying technical expertise for UN mediation teams at peace talks.
The frustration for many international feminist groups is that women are reduced to being marginal observers at negotiations or cut out at the top threshold.
The movement for inclusion on Syria involves UN Women and such groups as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Women’s Democracy Network, the International Civil Society Action Network, Karama, Madre, CodePink and more.
“Just a few weeks ago, Security Council passed Resolution 2122 on Women, Peace and Security, stressing the need to address the persistent implementation gap that has marred the realization of UNSCR 1325,” Yasmine Ergas, director of the new gender and public policy specialization at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, said in an email. “In approving Resolution 2122, the Council declared its intention to focus more attention on women’s leadership and participation in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. It would be astonishing if negotiations intended to begin a peacebuilding process in Syria were now to exclude or only minimally involve women. Would that not fly in the face of the Security Council’s clearly stipulated policy of inclusion?”
To push for Syrian women to attend as a “direct, third party” and for including gender expertise in the talks, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which has been operating since 1915, has posted a petition on its website that people can sign to be sent to Brahimi and relevant foreign ministers, like United States Secretary of State John Kerry. The petition, dated Nov. 25, 2013, declares that “to date, Syrian women have not been included in the process, even though they are active, prepared and representative.”
The wording is clear, it says, in the original Geneva communiqué of 2012, which propelled Geneva II talks, “that women must be fully represented in all aspects of the transition.”
Dr. Abigail Ruane, a New York program consultant for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, wrote in an email: “At present, the future Syria is being negotiated with the warring factions without the presence of women. A narrative of power is taking place instead, which ignores the Security Council Resolutions on women, peace and security and the evidence of past failures where this pattern has been followed.”
Although the list of participants for Geneva II is still being decided, Martin Nesirky, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman, wrote in an email that Ban and Brahimi “have consistently urged both government and opposition to ensure women’s participation at the international conference in January.”
Van der Schatte Olivier of Hivos said that Brahimi has been “quite receptive” to incorporating women in the conference but no formal commitment has been made yet. Dr. Ruane’s take on Brahimi’s reaction is different.
Her group is specifically asking for a senior woman mediator to participate at the same level as Brahimi, with a team of experts on international humanitarian law to support her, so that women are included “at the table” and “not just in the corridors.” There has been “some indication of support by key member states for this, but substantial challenges remain for broader UN support,” she added.
That means Brahimi himself, whom Ruane said “has his heels dug in, so we are exploring other avenues of ensuring women’s full and equal participation.”
Van der Schatte Olivier, a lawyer and international development expert, said that a delegation from some of the Syrian women’s groups the Dutch program is working with and others from Egypt visited the UN in September to rally for women’s roles in regional peace processes and to meet with Brahimi and additional UN officials to “gain access at the highest political arena” in the Geneva discussions. The women will sit down with Brahimi before January to push again to be represented by both sides of the conflict and as a third party.
Dr. Ruane’s group is planning with partners to hold a Women Lead to Peace Summit on Jan. 21 in Geneva, with women from such post-conflict societies as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ireland, Liberia and Rwanda telling their stories and hearing testimony from Syrian women describing life in a war zone and in refugee camps.
Karama, an Arab organization focused on ending violence against women in the MENA region, is promoting the Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace to be present at Geneva. (The forum receives financial help from a nonprofit, Donor Direct Action.)
Members of the forum have not met with Brahimi, said Hibaaq Osman, a Karama founder, but they are continually meeting with people from his office. “They understand, however, that the effort must go beyond Brahimi, and Brahimi alone cannot push the government of Syria and/or the coalition to include women.”
Osman noted that the forum was pushing for it to happen by “working with women’s groups and civil society and political parties to make sure that women are not only included, but that women are listened to, and that as part of the peace deal, women’s needs are prioritized.”
Meanwhile, the Dutch program plans to finance up to 30 women’s groups in MENA and is looking at 10 right now. On the list are three Syrian entities operating inside and outside the country: the Syrian Women’s Network (SWN); the Syrian Women’s League (SWL); and Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria (CCSDS), whose members are men and women.
“After the uprising in Egypt, we convened a regional strategy session in the MENA region among women activists” on UN Resolution 1325 “to see what was happening in the region,” van der Schatte Olivier said by Skype last week. During the session they saw a huge need for small new initiatives to be financed and given organizational support. The program is also open to financing individuals.
“Our overall objective is to strengthen women’s organizations and contribute to women transforming society in MENA,” van der Schatte Olivier added.
Women on the Frontline has also talked to officials in the American government to get involved. “The idea was to start with the Dutch government fund and then as soon as we had our feet on the ground to address multidonors,” van der Schatte Olivier said, noting that the US has leadership programs for women in the MENA region, but it does not preclude the US from working with the Dutch on the same goals.
Meanwhile, some of the criteria the Dutch program looks for in helping an organization is how much it uses social media and is willing to join forces with, say, like-minded youth groups to cement the cause – democratization – and create “lasting impact,” van der Schatte Olivier said.
Most groups need training in articulating their ideas and shaping them into working concepts. “Some of the women are extremely brilliant minds with a lot of passion,” she said. “They need a bit of guidance and support.”
The Syrian Women’s Network, for example, was officially founded in May and consists of nongovernmental organizations and individuals throughout the country. Its current working concept is political prisoners in Syria, including female prisoners, so that if the network attends the Geneva conference, it can put the issue on the agenda.
The trouble with the countries that the Dutch program plans to work with is that they are all in flux.
The situation in Egypt has changed drastically since July, when freedom of expression was squashed by the resurgent military regime. Tunisia is the most stable, while Libya is verging toward a failed state; Yemen, like Tunisia, is engaged in a national dialogue on peace. In Iraq, a battle between conservatives and moderates, coupled with sectarian violence, has made it difficult for women to be out on the streets, and they have few role models to rely on to make progress. In Iraq, women “can’t go where they want to go,” van der Schatte Olivier said.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.