Missing from the Table: Women and the Formal Peace Process for Syria

Introduction: Women and the Syrian Peace Process

Soon to enter its eighth year, the Syrian civil war has been consistently described as the one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with over 400,000 people killed and 11 million displaced since it began. As the war slowly approaches a foreseeable end, discussion on the conflict has increasingly shifted to the need for a comprehensive, sustainable peace agreement that will foster stability and reconstruction. External and internal forces continue to exert significant pressure on armed actors to find a meaningful political solution to the conflict, and although this process is fraught with obstacles and uncertainties, it offers a unique opportunity to lay the foundations for a more just and representative society. Women have an important role to play in the political peace process. Syrian women, who are generally portrayed as mere victims of the conflict, and not active agents of change, have been prominently engaged in laying the groundwork for sustainable peace and justice in the post-conflict context. From mitigating violence and combating extremism at the local-level, to advancing women’s rights and participating in local governance, politically engaged and active women have displayed remarkable resilience in the face of extreme adversity throughout the conflict.

Security Council Resolution 1325 and the Promotion of Women in Peacebuilding at all Levels
The critical role of women in establishing long-lasting peace and security has been promoted at the international-level through United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1325 (SCR 1325) and similar subsequent resolutions which have provided a framework for the broader Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. When it was passed in October 2000, SCR 1325 was hailed as a landmark resolution, representing the first time that women’s experiences in conflict were placed front and center of a Security Council resolution. It was also the first instance of a Security Council session being fully dedicated to discussions on women in conflict and post-conflict settings.

Promoting women’s ‘equal participation and full involvement’ in the ‘promotion of peace and security,’ is one of the resolution’s core objectives. SCR 1325 reaffirms women’s roles in conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding. The resolution emphasises the need for greater representation of women ‘at all decision-making levels in national, regional, and international institutions and mechanisms for conflict prevention, conflict management, conflict resolution and peacebuilding.’ It also aims to move away from the stereotypes which have traditionally characterised humanitarian law’s treatment of women and gender – i.e. the common depictions of women as passive victims lacking agency either before, during or after conflicts. Although SCR 1325 does not establish any new fundamental rights, it does highlight existing rights and obligations enshrined within both humanitarian and human rights law and presents a potentially powerful tool to both protect and empower women in conflict-affected settings.

Women Sidelined in Syrian Peace Process despite Major Contributions and Implications for the Reconstruction of Syrian Society

The initial enthusiasm and optimism that accompanied the passing of SCR 1325 has significantly subsided. Nearly 20 years on, the WPS agenda remains limited in its implementation and effectiveness as a tool in cementing women’s positions in formal peace negotiations and security-related decision-making structures and processes. Recent studies demonstrate that women’s participation in peace negotiations makes the resulting peace deal 64 percent less likely to fail and 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years. Despite this evidence and countless examples, with the UN-led Syrian peace negotiations, which began in 2012, it was not until 2016 that the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, appointed a Women’s Advisory Board (WAB). Comprised of twelve women, representing different sides of the conflict, the WAB created a space within which women could participate as third-party advisors and observers.

However, compared to their overwhelmingly male counterpart negotiators and mediators invited to the peace talks, the WAB remain on the sidelines. It remains mostly men who are the key players and decision-makers. Despite their systematic and ongoing marginalisation throughout the formal peace process, the WAB itself has provided a model for effective peacebuilding strategies by reaching consensus on controversial issues essential to establishing stability. Nevertheless, the WAB’s ability to exert influence on the political process and catalyse the further inclusion of Syrian women remains in doubt. Women continue to be underrepresented in official roles in the UN-led peace process. Only 15 percent of the opposition and government delegations at the December 2017 talks in Geneva were women. In response to this continued underrepresentation, the recently-established Syrian Women’s Political Movement is advocating for a 30 percent quota for women’s participation in formal peace negotiations.

Women-led efforts to lay the foundations for peace have been invaluable, although they have yet to translate into seats at the table. At the local level, women have been leaders in civil society, facilitating successful ceasefire negotiations, organising non-violent protests, documenting human rights violations, working in field hospitals and schools, and distributing critical aid and food. Women’s involvement has proven instrumental in expanding the peace agenda, raising awareness of a number of issues which are crucial to creating enduring peace and recovery, including, but not limited to: inquiries into disappearances, the effects of economic sanctions, and the release of detainees. Women comprise 50 percent of the Syrian Civil Society Platform at the national level and provide important information and recommendations on the situation on the ground through their local network sources. The data and analysis which women-led civil society groups collect and disseminate is critical to international watchdogs and parties to negotiations.

Women’s transformative participation in peacebuilding and calls for justice did not merely begin when they, and their communities, became victims of the war. Through the Syrian revolution and the civil war, women, like men, have been bombed, starved, raped, imprisoned, and tortured. For many Syrian women activists, the continued exclusion of women from the political peace process represents another violation – a resounding message that women’s efforts to secure peace, equality, democracy, and their victimisation at the hands of armed actors are still ‘not taken seriously.’

Conclusion: An Opportunity to Leverage SCR 1325 to More Effectively Include Syrian Women and Create a More Just Society

Security Council Resolution 1325 may not be ‘radical enough’ to dismantle the ‘deeply ingrained,’ narrow conceptions of women’s roles in war and peacebuilding. However, leveraging SCR 1325 and the WPS agenda to pressure key actors to honour their commitments to women’s right to be meaningfully included in the reconstruction of their own society, may be one strategy to ensure that Syrian women’s contributions to peace and security are taken more seriously. Transformative peace requires women to be a part of the formal and informal structures and processes which have the mandate to create it. The situation in Syria is the exact type of conflict and opportunity that SCR 1325 and the WPS agenda envisaged and were established to address.

Women are not just peace makers, they have political demands and aspirations for their society. When women are included in formal peace processes as negotiators, they bring a more comprehensive view of the conflict to the table. They bring ideas, not only about how to end violence, but also how to address the social factors that catalysed the initial unrest. Moreover, if women are to be equal members of the society that is reconstructed in the future, then they must be equal members of these discussions now. If permanent peace and a more just society are truly the aims of the Syrian peace process, it is essential that the UN, Russia, the United States, and other nations actively promote strategies that evidence clearly shows will increase the odds of reaching a lasting peace agreement.

Council on Foreign Relations, ‘Syria- Women’s Roles: In Brief’ (2017) <https://www.cfr.org/interactive/womens-participation-in-peace-processes/syria> accessed 21 May 2018
Barrow A, ‘UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and 1820: Constructing Gender in Armed Conflict and International Humanitarian Law’ [2010] IRRC 223, 229United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security, UN Doc. S/RES/1325(2000)
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, ‘Ways Syrian Women Must be Included in the Upcoming Peace Talks’ (2016) <https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/ways-syrian-women-must-be-included-upcoming-peace-talks> accessed 21 May 2018
Alrahabi M, ‘Syrian Women Unite for Political Change’ (2017) <https://www.una.org.uk/magazine/2017-2/syrian-women-unite-political-change> accessed 21 May 2018
Jouejati R, ‘Women are Invisible at the Syria Peace Talks. ‘ (2017) <https://www.una.org.uk/magazine/2017-2/syrian-women-unite-political-change> accessed 21 May 2018

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