While new Syrian peace talks organized by the United Nations remain tentatively scheduled to begin on Jan. 25 in Switzerland, a substantial group of Syrian women is preparing to convene in Geneva starting that day to demand an equal place at the negotiations table.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, who is arranging the peace talks, said in an email that he was “committed to ensure the voices and views of Syrian civil society and women organisations are represented throughout the talks.”
One particular group, of 25 Syrian women, is coming as members of the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy (SWIPD), a network of civil society organizations from inside and outside the country. Some of those organizations are supported by Women on the Frontline, a program started in 2013 by the Dutch government to help women in the North Africa-Middle East region get involved in political processes in their corner of the world. Frontline is facilitating the 25 Syrian women in their trip to Geneva. Hivos, a Dutch international development entity, runs Frontline.
“We are unsure of what will happen,” said Jetteke van der Schatte Olivier, the manager of Women on the Frontline at its base in The Hague. “With all the sensitivity on the situation.”
The new round of Syrian talks is being readied by de Mistura and his team in Geneva, who are working day and night to finish preparations for the Jan. 25 launching, his office said. The impetus for the negotiations stem from a resolution the UN Security Council agreed on in December to resolve the war politically.
Less than a week away, the talks face major obstacles, such as who will participate on the rebel side, whether a third party backed by Russia can join in and whether the meeting will even happen. De Mistura is now putting the onus on the Security Council and the relevant parties to commit to the political process laid out by the Council last month. As one member of the Geneva team said, the talks must go on — the Syrian people can’t wait any longer.
In addition, a cease-fire in Syria, integral to conditions set out by the Council for the talks, is barely possible now because of siege and starvation tactics being used by the government and, to a lesser degree, armed opposition factions (as well as areas controlled by ISIS).
The Security Council also stated emphatically that women must be part of the discussions on ending the war in Syria.
Two years ago, peace talks on Syria were led by the UN in Geneva but crumbled almost instantaneously. During early meetings, female activists from civil society organizations in the West and the Middle East showed up to be seen and to be heard, but they were relegated to the sidelines by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy for Syria at the time.
The group of Frontline-sponsored women arriving in Geneva next week will have a “substantive agenda” of demands regarding their participation, van der Schatte Olivier said. The women have been trained and prepped on their presentations and have their “papers ready regarding topics on the table”; they have been working mainly through UN Women to ensure their role in Geneva.
Van der Schatte Olivier said the group asked de Mistura to be invited as a Syrian delegation at the negotiations. “They want to have a say in what is happening in the peace process, to bring the demands to life and develop their own agendas.”
“We don’t know if that is possible,” van der Schatte Olivier said. “We will probably hear at a late stage, when we arrive.”
De Mistura’s office, she said, has been “responsive to getting women on board.” The question is how and when. “These are serious talks that you can never underestimate.”
The group of women, she noted, is “fairly representative” of Syrian society, including from the opposition and from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, although more represent the opposition.
In late December, members of de Mistura’s team elaborated in an article published by PassBlue what women’s groups needed to keep in mind to be involved as equal partners in Geneva. One notable recommendation was that women needed to control their emotions once they sat at the table with the warring sides.
Yet van der Schatte Olivier noted that “to be honest, everyone can get emotional” in these settings. Men get emotional, she said, when they want to make a point and “start yelling and screaming.” But women are not considered professionals if they act that way. “It’s about how women are perceived.” The women she has been working with have been coached on how to command a room and gain respect, and “they did really well.”
She added that the legitimacy of men’s behavior is never questioned, even though they are the ones who have been fighting and killing.
The Syrian women’s demands include a quota that ensures women’s representation in the opposition and in the regime as the talks proceed and the release of political prisoners.
The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, an organization that went to the Syrian peace talks two years ago, is also calling for a large role in the new Geneva sessions. In a statement released this week, the League, which goes by WILPF, is demanding that the negotiating table have a 30 percent quota of female participants in each delegation. It also wants an independent women-only delegation, among other requirements.
“WILPF strongly believes that mediators, Member States, and the United Nations must exert pressure on — and guarantee that — all warring parties of the Syrian conflict and stakeholders ensure women’s inclusion in the process is equal and meaningful,” the statement read.
The actual setup of the talks is still unclear. Will sessions be held in one meeting room or separately between the opposition and the government? One party could be meeting in the UN’s Palace of Nations in Geneva and the other in a hotel nearby. “It depends on how they manage to keep them [meetings] going,” van der Schatte Olivier noted.
Being present in Geneva will give the Frontline-sponsored group an important advantage, she said: they can ask de Mistura and his team to “come and see us” for informal meetings and updates. Logistical arguments to prevent the women from being close participants will become moot if they stay nearby. “We are putting pressure on them,” she added.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach 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 Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working 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.