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Women Are Invisible at the Syria Peace Talks


Members of the UN-led Syrian women’s advisory board, who participated as a third party in the Geneva peace talks last year, April 2016. MARIA LUISA GAMBALE

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Jan. 22, millions of women around the world took to the streets to march for equal rights, equal representation and equal access in all avenues of public and private life. On Jan. 23 in Astana, Kazakhstan, 55 delegates met to try to reach an agreement on the war in Syria. Not one of the delegates was a woman.

The violence in Syria has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of women. Another six million have been displaced or become refugees. Yet women, who are just as much a part of the Syrian revolution as their male counterparts, were not invited to the negotiating table in Astana, and there is a real risk that they will not be significantly represented in Geneva as talks begin.

Nearly six years into Syria’s revolution for freedom, dignity and democracy, the dearth of women at peace talks has been staggering. Since Day 1 of the revolution, we have led calls for democracy and freedom. We have led local councils, participated in search-and-rescue efforts and forged local cease-fires. We have monitored and documented human-rights abuses, headed households and educated the next generation of Syrians.

Like men, we have been raped, starved and bombed. We have been tortured. Yet our exclusion from Astana was, in a sense, another violation: it is a clear statement that women — who make up more than 50 percent of Syrian society — are not taken seriously in the struggle against dictatorship.

Sustainable peace is elusive, especially when women are not included in the peace-making process. History shows that when women are involved in negotiating peace, the likelihood of it lasting at least 15 years increases by 35 percent.

The end of conflict is, of course, only the beginning of sustainable peace. The hard work takes place in the years after a cease-fire is carried out. To ensure that violence subsides in the long term, comprehensive measures must be put in place before peace agreements are signed. Women have a major contribution to make in this regard.

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Rafif Jouejati, the author.

Studies show that women negotiators are more likely to consider factors that lead to a full peace. They consider not only how to stop violence but also how to address the social issues that led to unrest in the first place. With women at the negotiating table, there is a far stronger likelihood that they will be adequately represented in the future in all realms of society. With women in leadership roles, there are greater chances of establishing a just society during reconstruction efforts, thus increasing the likelihood of long-term stability.

Syrian women have been working at the forefront of peace-building and human-rights efforts. Women-led organizations like FREE-Syria and the Violations Documentation Center in Syria have monitored war crimes, established educational programs and testified on the atrocities inflicted on Syrian civilians by the regime and ISIS.

Two Syrian women-run organizations, Bihar Relief and Sawa for Development and Aid, have been heading humanitarian efforts for displaced Syrians. Other women-led organizations have set up community centers and funded refugee support initiatives. Inside Syria, women’s involvement in organizations like the Local Coordination Committees have resulted in civil resistance training and negotiations among armed factions.

Women have also played a role behind the scenes. They have secured local cease-fires and release of detainees. The detention practices of the Syrian regime are among the most egregious in the world: tens of thousands have been tortured or starved to death in the regime’s prisons since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, and more than 200,000 have been forcibly disappeared. Yet amid these obstacles, women — many of whom have been jailed themselves — have secured the release of political prisoners through peaceful means.

Syrian women are part and parcel of Syria’s revolution and they must be included as negotiators in all rounds of peace talks. Our voices are the voices of the Syrian people. Russia and Iran, brokers of the Astana talks, are seemingly not concerned with women’s participation.

But the UN strives for inclusivity, and Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, can make good on its commitment to gender equality. He should use the UN’s position to continue pressing for women’s inclusion, as he did in last year’s talks in Geneva, when the UN organized a Syrian women’s advisory board to participate as a third party.

In addition, the Syrian opposition’s negotiating delegation in Geneva, led by the High Negotiations Committee, included some of Syria’s most effective leaders. It just so happens that they were women.

If we are to achieve a permanent peace, these women’s voices, and those of other women civil society leaders, must be heard at the negotiating table in Geneva. If our vision for Syria is truly about freedom, dignity and democracy for all Syrians, let us make that happen right now.


Rafif Jouejati is the founder and director of the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE-Syria). She is also the English spokeswoman for the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) in Syria, a grass-roots network that aligns the activities of pro-democracy Syrians in each of the country’s 14 governorates. As an executive committee member of the Day After Project, Jouejati worked with key actors in the Syrian opposition to develop a transition plan for Syria. At a Women’s Democracy Network event and at the Olof Palme Center in Stockholm, Jouejati advanced a charter demanding 50 percent representation of women in every aspect of Syria’s governance. Follow her on Twitter: @RafifJ.

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