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Women Lead to Peace: Q & A on the Prospects for Peace and Women's Human Rights in Syria

For nearly three years, we have been watching Syria–first with hope and then with a growing sense of horror–as peaceful calls for freedom degenerated into a protracted war.

Urgent concern for the millions of Syrians caught in the crisis should motivate us to support a peaceful resolution. The peace talks starting January 22 in Switzerland offer a new opportunity to lay the groundwork to end the bloodshed. But instead, the international process to negotiate a peace settlement has been dominated by armed groups who are most responsible for escalating the violence that has caused so much suffering.

Left out of this equation are the pro-democracy and human rights activists who launched the uprising. Missing are the voices of women who played crucial leadership roles in mounting peaceful resistance and in sustaining their communities, under siege in Syria or as refugees in neighboring countries. The perspectives and priorities of Syrian women must be reflected in any political settlement of the conflict. This is true not only because women represent half the population, but because their contributions to reconciliation and community-based recovery efforts are both substantial and essential to lasting peace.

As the war consuming Syria rages on and as peace negotiations begin, this resource explains the conflict, its impact on women and families, and the solutions we need to support now.

Why have efforts to negotiate a peace faltered so far?

Negotiators from the United Nations and key government stakeholders like the US have struggled to establish a means to convince armed actors to come to the table or to agree upon a baseline for the discussions.

Meanwhile, the gatekeepers of this peace process have propped up an inherent contradiction. States like Saudi ArabiaRussia and the US have accelerated the conflict by providing weapons and military support to the government and armed groups, reducing incentives to lay down arms even as they attempt to broker peace.

These armed actors who dominate international news headlines about the conflict also fall far short as representatives of the priorities and demands of the Syrian people as a whole. That's why it's so important that women, who are disproportionately represented among non-violent pro-democracy activists, be empowered to participate as an independent "third way" in peace talks.

How can we ensure that a peace agreement lasts?

A peace agreement holds when it reflects the priorities of many and when it is widely viewed as legitimate. This requires a deliberate strategy to incorporate grassroots perspectives and feedback, pushing back at the historical tendency to limit access to an elite subset of armed actors. The most effective way to ensure this is to create a space for women's voices.

More and more, world leaders and the gatekeepers to official peace processes are recognizing the invaluable role of women's leadership. In places like Northern IrelandLiberia and Guatemala, women were central in creating and maintaining mechanisms that directly and indirectly connected communities affected by violence to the peace negotiations. This did more than ensure that the peace agreement would be shaped by on-the-ground realities and priorities. It also built people's confidence in the process and the credibility of the final outcome, a formula for lasting peace.

What are the demands of Syrian women for peace and justice?

Throughout the conflict, Syrian women have organized to protect their families and communities, under siege within Syrian or struggling to survive as refugees. Leading up to these renewed peace talks, the global women's movement has mobilized to support the demands of Syrian women, including for an immediate ceasefire, for increased humanitarian aid for refugees and displaced people, and for the full participation of women at the peace negotiations.

Creating a space for these women's demands is not merely a matter of courtesy. It is a commitment under international law. UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 2122 require the participation of women in peace negotiations, an obligation reinforced in the Geneva Communiqu� I that initiated this peace process.

That's why women's rights advocates have called on the leadership in the negotiating process to give more than lip service to the need to include women. They must also provide the appropriate support Syrian women's groups need to participate effectively and ensure that all delegations involved in the negotiations have senior women mediators and gender experts.

What is the war really about?

In 2011, young Syrians joined the peaceful protesters of the Arab Spring and demonstrated against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Their example, and the brutal repression they faced from government forces, triggered a mass popular uprising calling for rights and democracy.

The reality today is significantly changed. Syrian rebels have taken up arms against Assad's government, and much of the country is under siege.

Superimposed onto Syria's civil war is a regional, even global, battle for influence: Iran, Russia and China are arming Assad and blocking efforts to sanction Syria through the UN Security Council. The US, EU, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Israel oppose Assad's government.

It gets even more complicated: Saudi Arabia and Iran are each using Syria to further their own ambitions to dominate the region. The US is allied with Saudi Arabia but is wary that a rebel victory may not propel its interests, namely as Al Qaeda forces have gained influence in the armed opposition. Saudi Arabia and Iran are manipulating previously immaterial sectarian differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims to spur the fighting, turning a political struggle into a sectarian war. Inflaming these differences is tearing at the fabric of Syria's diverse society and may further destabilize Lebanon and Iraq as well.

Who makes up the opposition in this conflict?

Today, the rebels arrayed against the regime of Syrian President Assad are a conglomeration, including the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), both linked to al-Qaeda, and the Free Syrian Army, which is a catch-all term for numerous other groups and individual foreign fighters. Moreover, it is not uncommon for individuals to switch allegiances from one group to another, depending on who is best resourced and militarily successful. Recent reports of ISIS and other foreign fighters committing abuses against Syrian communities have also disillusioned some members of the opposition who had initially welcomed their support.

The Assad regime, the armed opposition and their regional and international allies have come to dominate the landscape of the peace negotiations. But there are other voices–those of peaceful, pro-democracy activists–who must be included. We must dialogue with and amplify the voices of those Syrians who are currently marginalized within the opposition but share a peaceful, democratic vision for their country. As activists, we must also pressure our governments to focus on those who are most threatened by this war–Syrian women and families–and reach out to them with humanitarian aid and solidarity.

What has been the impact on women and families?

Syrians are confronting one of the most severe humanitarian crises in the world, with a death toll exceeding 130, 000 people. More than 2.2 million Syrians have been made refugees and that number is growing. More than 80% of the refugees are women and their children.

Women have not been spared from the killings and massacres in this war, and there have been reports of women and children being used as human shields or hostages by armed groups. Women activists have been detained as part of government crackdowns on the rebel opposition and have been raped and tortured in detention.

Women and girls have been targeted with sexual violence used to terrorize, a threat many cited as their primary reason for fleeing the country. An investigation by the Women's Media Center tracked reports of rape and documented testimonies revealing the deliberate, politically-motivated nature of these attacks. When a soldier in the Free Syrian Army was captured by government forces, women from his family were brought to the prison and raped in front of him. Government soldiers who raped three sisters in one home allegedly said to them, "You want freedom? This is your freedom."

In areas controlled by the al-Nusra Front and ISIS, extremists have imposed oppressive rules on women and girls, reversing freedoms of movement, expression and more that they had previously enjoyed. In some cases, women and girls have been prevented from working, going to school or just leaving their homes without a male guardian, even to flee violence.

What are the conditions for Syrians who have become refugees?

Syrians desperate to escape the war have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, sometimes arriving by the thousands in a single day. Relief agencies and host countries are overwhelmed by the numbers and by the need.

As refugee families grow more destitute, women and girls face threats of early marriage and forced prostitution. Early marriage is seen as a way to ensure that daughters are cared for and fed, and to generate scarce income for the family through the bride-price. But girls sold into marriage are extremely vulnerable to abuse, lose opportunities for education and risk serious health hazards of early pregnancy.

Some refugee women have been forced into prostitution by their families, under the cover of short-term marriage arrangements. There is often a permeable barrier between coerced marriage and sex trafficking. Women and girls sold into marriage are sometimes abandoned or sold again to brothels or traffickers, where their abuse and exploitation only worsens.

What is MADRE doing to respond?

MADRE is working with Syrian women to meet urgent needs and lay the groundwork for women's voices to be heard in calls for peace and representation in negotiations. Responding to what Syrian refugee women have told us they need most, MADRE is partnering with local women's groups in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and inside Syria to provide:

  • Humanitarian aid tailored to women's needs, including health supplies and solar lanterns to help prevent night-time attacks on women and girls.

  • Reproductive healthcare, including midwifery services and access to contraception and family planning.

  • Trainings so that women can know their human rights, access their rights as refugees and document human rights violations and obstacles to justice.

  • Bridges between Syrian refugee women, local women's organizations and international networks and policymakers, to ensure that women's priorities are integrated into humanitarian and peace-building efforts.