Why are women excluded from the peace talks that will shape Syria’s future? Lindsay Cornelio examines the issue.
As the Syrian War grows “overtly sectarian in nature,” in the words of a 2012 UN report, a familiar tale is playing out: Mediators accommodate volatile war-making elites and international actors bolster opposing forces with money, arms and dialogue, all while professing to support a home-grown process. Women are left out, despite the fact that they have been involved in protesting, informing and organizing.
The international community still needs to be convinced that women are an essential part of a process that is meant to be for Syrians and by Syrians. We are missing the lessons from past wars of identity. The legacies of conflict derive not only from the faulty negotiations of those who were present, but also from negotiations that were made faulty because of those who were absent.
The concurrent rise of ethnic nationalism and militarization has strong gendered implications. Violence, hyper-masculinity and traditional patriarchal values become glorified while women are regarded as vulnerable reproducers of nationhood. This makes women ideal targets to offend the other ethnic group. Men try to “poison” the opposition by raping their women or taking their “precious property” by abducting women. This is what led to at least 60,000 women being raped in Bosnia and half a million in Rwanda. The same is happening in Syria; last year, the European Mediterranean Human Rights Network reported that more than 6,000 women had been raped since the start of the conflict; that figure excludes untold numbers of rapes that go unreported (EMHRN Report)
These figures are not a denial of the immense causalities suffered by male civilians. Men, however, are invited to share their stories of pain and pride at the negotiating table, while women are not. The humanitarian story of women’s protection sells well in the international community; the imperative of their participation in peacemaking and peacebuilding does not, despite the fact that it is a more sustainable solution to their victimhood than humanitarian rescue would be.
Mediators in Syria are dealing exclusively with the male elite of the National Coalition and the opposition, thus constructing a future state with the building blocks of those who perpetuate the conflict and violate human rights. As seen in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, this kind of negotiation institutionalizes and entrenches ethnic division and continues to inhibit women’s political participation.
Lakhdar Brahimi, special envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League, walked out before a Syrian women’s organization even presented its peace plan in January at a side event of the Geneva II peace talks.
According to Madeleine Rees, president of Women’s International League For Peace, which supported the women, Brahimi said, that “… women have an important role…but unfortunately it’s not very easy to see women playing that role” because the negotiations must take place between the conflicting parties only.
What about Russia and the U.S., which are not parties to the conflict but are directly involved in negotiations?
Though unrecognized by the international community, this small group of women at Geneva II was but a sampling of vibrant Syrian women who have refused to assume the roles of victims and have crafted ambitious political agendas. The Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace drafted the Syrian Women’s Charter for Peace to present at Geneva II. This roadmap to peace includes provisions such as including Syrian women and men from civil society in the Conference and supporting women’s participation in disarmament, reconstruction and transitional justice. Interestingly, the Charter explicitly rejects ethnic, religious or military components of government, points that Brahimi, Russia and the U.S. have failed to emphasize.
The Syrian Women’s Network and the Coalition of Syrian Women for Democracy also bring together women from the diaspora to debate the path to true democracy. Like the Women in Black in Serbia and the Women Together for Peace in Northern Ireland, these women’s groups are rebuilding civil society networks that surmount ethnic lines. The shared experiences of marginalization and social mobilization are powerful unifying forces.
This is not a claim that women should be included in decision-making because they are inherently peaceful and always able to transcend ethnic and religious differences. Many Syrian women have participated in violence; there is as much nuance among women as there is among men. The point is that elite accommodation fails to capitalize on the knowledge, experience and desires of other identity-based groups and, in the case of women, this means half the population. This creates unrepresentative and unsustainable governance.
The new Syrian constitution must formally incorporate women activists into the government, as did the new South African system, which has subsequently been very successful in overcoming ethnic conflict. More international support is needed for Syrian women’s groups, like the recent initiative by Britain’s Secretary William Hague. Newsweek reported that the initiative has given $330,000 to organizations that encourage ordinary Syrian women to get involved in national politics. Women’s political power must advance now or it will always be limited to aid for female victims.
Solutions cannot be based only upon convenience. Without full political inclusiveness, the foundational democratic elements of allegiance and trust will not develop.