Why peace in Syria is dependent on women's inclusion

Posted by Jane Remme Gender Adviser

13th Jun 2014

End sexual violence in conflict

Jane Remme, our regional gender adviser for the Middle East and Commonwealth of Independent States, attended this week's summit on sexual violence in conflict and came away inspired by the role of Syrian women in challenging the violence and discrimination in order to work towards and inclusive peace in Syria. 

The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, co-chaired by the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie, has been taking place this week in London and ends today (13 June). On Wednesday I attended a fringe event organised by Oxfam, in partnership with Gender Action for Peace and Security: Calling For an Inclusive Peace in Syria: The Crucial Role of Women's Voices. The event was inspiring, jam-packed and fed into the electrifying energy of the summit, with women and men from all over the world joining forces to demand an end to sexual violence in conflict. 

As the regional gender adviser for the Middle East and Commonwealth of Independent States for Oxfam GB, what seemed especially significant to me is that this event approached sexual violence in conflict as a part of the broader political, social and structural gender inequalities women face.

Dr Rim Turkmani, a Syrian peace activist, President and Founder of Madani, highlighted that violence against women was already present in Syrian society before the crisis broke out. It is a patriarchal society, where violence against women (VAW) is present at community and societal levels, and is indicative of structural discrimination against women. Not only are women more likely to experience sexual violence (in times of war and peace), but women can be targeted as weapons of war, as has been the case in Syria. 

In addition to grossly violating their basic rights, this objectification of women undermines them as equal stakeholders in the conflict.

I was shocked by some of the examples of targeting of women that Sabah Al Hallak, a member of Syrian Women's Initiative for Peace and Democracy, shared with the audience. Protesting women faced torture and brutal sexual abuse in detention centres, child and forced marriage is growing, and degrading women's bodies is used as a means of humiliating the conservative communities they come from. An explicit message to women that the political space does not belong to them, and using their bodies and their experience of sexual violence to humiliate warring factions. In addition to grossly violating their basic rights, this objectification of women undermines them as equal stakeholders in the conflict.

On a more positive note, Dr Turkmani highlighted the energy and vitality of Syrian youth, and the inspiring home-grown peace initiatives inside Syria, with women actively mobilising humanitarian aid, creating new civil society spaces and organisations and pressuring belligerent forces to cease the conflict. I found it inspiring to hear of women in conflict that are not being spoken of as victims or as a helpless vulnerable category in the conflict. For me, these examples embodied the resilience and strength of the Syrian women, in spite of the enormous challenges they are confronted with.

Peace processes that only include warring parties and exclude women are less sustainable and more likely to fail

Women are at the forefront of the peacemaking effort yet they are not included or visible in the peace process, and this is an injustice. Madeleine Rees, Secretary-General of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, drew attention to the substantial evidence that peace processes that only include warring parties and exclude women are less sustainable and more likely to fail. Further, such processes institutionalise the power grabs that caused the crisis, and actively ignore half of the population who are key stakeholders in what peace should look like (women). Additionally, international mechanisms exist to ensure peace processes are inclusive (UN Security Council resolution 1325 commits to this - if applied correctly!) and guarantee justice for survivors of sexual violence in conflict (UNSC resolutions 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106 and 2122 - again, if applied correctly).

As these mechanisms are not being respected in Syria, Fionna Smyth, Oxfam GB's Regional Campaigns and Policy Manager for the Middle East and CIS, stressed the importance of focusing on how women can be included in working towards peace in this situation. She highlighted three things:

1) The meaningful role of women's rights organisations in Syria (and of Syrian women abroad), and the need for international organisations like Oxfam to support and stand with them. During the Geneva II conference on Syria,Oxfam took a clear position with Syrian women and their organisations, demanding that their voices be heard;

2) Using flexible funding from international organisations for emerging civil society organisations; and

3) Working on both a track 1 and track 2 peace process (that is one that encompasses both official dialogue and space for civil society actors) to ensure women's inclusion.

There are two key messages I took away from this event. The first is that we cannot understand sexual violence in conflict in isolation from broader gender inequalities experienced by women. The second is that even though women and their organisations are being overlooked, violated, and marginalised in the conflict and peace process in Syria, they are raising their voices, mobilising for peace and responding to the consequences of the conflict.  We have a responsibility to ensure we stand by them and take every opportunity to advocate for the voices of Syrian women and their organisations to be an integral part of peace process.

Oxfam organised other events during the Summit, including: The Arms Trade Treaty: The Groundbreaking Text on Gender-Based Violence and The Importance of Women Police in Addressing Gender Based Violence: A Focus on Afghanistan 

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Blog post written by Jane Remme

Gender Adviser

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