Syrian Women and the Peace Process: An Argument for Inclusion
How lessons learned from Bosnia’s post-conflict reconstruction can be applied to Syria
Women often play a vital role in advocating for peace but are largely left out of the peace process. While women are often involved in peace advocacy by participating in grassroots organizations, we are more likely to see men engaging in the peace process at the negotiating table. According to Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, Executive Director of International Civil Society Action Network, part of the problem is that the “…propaganda machines used by states are too powerful and more prepared than women, who are often stepping into the fray for the first time.” Systems at play, including traditional gender roles, often prevent women from playing a role in the peace process. Women are also typically among the first groups to experience the effects of instability. The first signs of impending violent conflict are often the deterioration of women’s rights. Women often play a background role in conflicts, rather than acting as perpetrators or instigators of conflict which are traditionally reserved for men. In the same vein, women take a backseat when it comes to post-conflict reconstruction, though they are actively pushing for peacebuilding efforts at the ground level.
Women were entirely left out of the drafting and signing of the Dayton Accords, the peace treaty which ended the Bosnian War in 1995. The lack of understanding on the gender-specific issues, such as sexual and domestic abuse, is a key reason for the lack of positive peace, which can be understood as the absence of direct violence with the presence of social instability. Men returning from the Bosnian War were not given the proper psycho-social support to help them grapple with the atrocities they had witnessed. To cope, many vented their frustrations through domestic abuse, leading to the creation of non-governmental organizations such as Medica Zenica which provides safe houses and psychological support to women escaping domestic abuse.
The lack of women’s involvement in Bosnia’s post-conflict reconstruction and the resulting issues that Bosnia continues to face is reflective of the myriad of difficulties women who desire to be involved in the peacebuilding process face, which in turn leaves a vacuum for women-specific policies. It is common for women to work within the civil society arena, primarily at the grassroots level, but the true test is whether the peace process will include women-specific policies that address the needs and concerns of women. Policies that protect women’s rights and institutionalize women’s participation in the political arena are crucial during the peace process.
In Syria, the barriers to women’s participation in peacebuilding run much deeper than in Bosnia. As was seen in the Bosnian War, sexual assault has been rampant in Syria as perpetrators of violent conflict use it as a means to taint the gene pool, a common practice found in ethnic conflicts meant to undermine the enemy’s ethnic identity. This centers women and their bodies to the exacerbation of conflict. Even though Syria ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Form of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) in 2003, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index ranks Syria as number 142 out of 144 countries, ahead of only Pakistan and Yemen. Simply speaking, there aren’t many other places in the world where the gap between men and women is larger. Combined with a traditional, patriarchal society, if women, specifically those who advocate for women’s issues, are not included in the peace talks, there will be little hope for positive peace in Syria and even less hope for uplifting women’s rights.
To create a truly positive peace, the effects of the war on Syrian women must be recognized. The indicators of conflict on men and women differ depending on context. Conflict affects women differently than men because unlike men, women’s bodies can become politicized and are used as divisive tools during and leading up to a conflict. In addition, women are rarely included as combatants, making their role within conflicts different; many times they are the ones who are able to cross borders and opposing sides because they are able to garner trust more easily than their male counterparts. Ultimately, what is helpful for Bosnian women will not necessarily hold true for Syrian women. In order to ensure solutions are to be contextually-relevant, local civil society leaders and activists must be present in negotiations. Their proximity to the conflict gives them crucial, intimate knowledge of the issues at hand that will allow them to best know the appropriate solutions to conflict. For similar reasons, women need to be included at every level of negotiation in order to best address issues facing Syrian women as a result of the war. To do so, Syrian women need to be empowered to participate in the peace process. Given the gender dynamics in Syria, the best way to empower women is to first empower Syrian men to recognize how important it is for women to be at the table and for gender-specific policies. Ultimately, solving this issue must come from within. Foreign governments, transnational organizations, and women’s groups can only do so much to raise women’s voices to be heard at the peacebuilding level. Those who will lead peace talks in Syria must recognize the importance and magnitude of women’s voices and institutionalize ways to ensure that they are heard so that the next generation of Syrians can know a peaceful Syria.