Just days before the Syria peace talks known as Geneva II are scheduled to begin on January 22, 2014, in Montreux, Switzerland, Syria’s main political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), has agreed to attend. They will be joined by various officials of the Syrian government, UN officials and representatives from 35 countries. Swiss President Didier Burkhalter will deliver the opening remarks, followed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Then, Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry will address the assembly on behalf of the forum’s initiators. But one voice will be notably underrepresented—that of Syrian women, especially the non-violent, pro-democracy activists who represent civil society. “When we talk about women at the table, the men see them as the tablecloth,” said Hibaaq Osman, an NGO leader who has been working with Syrian women and pushing for their inclusion. “The future of Syria should not exclusively be decided by those who carry guns.”
Syrian women have suffered immensely throughout the conflict. The estimated 100,000 killed so far includes not just men, but thousands of women and children. Women activists have been detained as part of government crackdowns on the rebel opposition and have been raped and tortured in detention. An investigation by the Women’s Media Center tracked reports of rape and deliberate, politically-motivated attacks on women. 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. In another sickening story, three sisters recounted how a group of Syrian army soldiers broke into their house in Homs, tied up their father and brother, raped the three women in front of them, and then opened their legs and burned their vaginas with cigarettes, saying “You want freedom? This is your freedom.” There have also been reports of women and children being used as human shields or hostages by armed groups.
In areas controlled by the fundamentalist rebel groups, extremists have imposed oppressive rules on women and girls, reversing freedoms of movement, expression and other rights women had previously exercised. 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. Human Rights Watch has reported that some extremist Islamist groups in northern Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Nusra Front, and the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), are imposing strict and discriminatory rules on women and girls, such as requiring them to wear headscarves and full-length robes, limiting their ability to carry out essential daily activities, to move freely in public or to attend school.
The humanitarian crisis is acute. Some 4 million Syrians have been internally displaced. Food and access to it is so restricted in some of the military-contested areas that children are dying from starvation. “There are children who are eating roots and leaves off the trees,” said Kefah Ali Deeb of the National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change. “Believe me; this is not my imagination. There is more suffering than you could imagine.”
Syrians desperate to escape the war have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, sometimes arriving by the thousands in a single day. Some three million Syrians are now refugees, over 80% of them women and children. Large numbers of women whose husbands have been killed or are off fighting have suddenly become heads of their households, but bereft of resources to care for their children. Relief agencies and host countries are overwhelmed by the numbers and the need. And although the refugees living abroad are spared the immediate impact of the fighting, many are unfortunately still subjected to violence, sexual assault, and abysmal living conditions.
According to a U.N. Women study, child marriages and domestic violence are on the rise among refugee families. As refugees grow more destitute, parents are more inclined to pull their daughters out of schools or marry them off at younger ages in exchange for dowries. Early marriage is seen as a way to ensure that daughters are cared for and fed, and to generate scarce income for the family. 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. Women and girls sold into marriage are sometimes abandoned or sold again to brothels or traffickers, where their abuse and exploitation only worsens.
Syrian women, many of whom were involved in the initial pro-democracy, nonviolent uprising against Bashar al-Assad, have been risking their lives to address the humanitarian crisis—distributing humanitarian aid, monitoring human rights and providing emergency help. Syrian women have brokered local ceasefires to enable aid to get through. While the fighting has raged around them, women have continued to organize, build civil society groups and train themselves to play a role in designing a unified, democratic Syria.
These women have repeatedly called on the international community to include their voices in peace efforts. From January 11-13, 2014, 47 Syrian women gathered under the auspices of UN Women to hash out their positions. “We cannot remain silent regarding events unfolding in Syria, such as daily death, massive destruction, starvation, displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrian families in Syria and abroad, the spread of terror and violence, ongoing detentions, acts of kidnapping, destruction of infrastructure and the spread of diseases, particularly among children,” said Syrian activist Kefah Ali Deeb at a UN press conference.
The women called for the effective participation of women in all negotiating teams and committees in a proportion of no less than 30%. They called for senior gender experts to be fully integrated into the UN mediation team. “We want there be a meaningful participation of women in the entire political process, including in the formation of the transitional governing body, the constitutional drafting committee, the drafting of the election law, mechanisms of transitional justice, the local administration and local committees for civil peace,” said Syrian activist Delsha Ayoat a UN press conference.
The women are desperate to deal with the immediate human catastrophe. “Large numbers of women have been arrested, kidnapped or disappeared. They include our families, our friends, our colleagues,” said Kefah Ali Deeb, activist and member of National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change. “We must get the detainees released from prison and break the sieges that are driving stranded populations to starvation.”
But they are also looking down the road, and many have been working on principles for a new constitution. “We have been watching what happened in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and there are a lot of lessons to prepare ourselves,” said Sabah Alhallak, the women’s coordinator for the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs. They insist that any eventual constitution guarantee women’s equality and penalize all forms of discrimination and violence against women.
While Lakhdar Brahimi has met with the women several times and has encouraged their participation as observers, he has not agreed to grant them an official role. Unfortunately, even at the peace table, the men with guns will continue to have the loudest voices.
In response, the groups CODEPINK, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), MADRE, Karama and the Nobel Women’s Initiative are gathering at the talks under the banner of “Women Lead to Peace” to support Syrian women. The day before the official talks begin, they will hold a Women’s Summit with women from former conflict zones such as Bosnia, Liberia, Guatemala and Ireland speaking about their experiences of transitioning from war to peace. Syrian women and humanitarian aid workers will share their stories and experiences of life in Syria and refugee camps. There will then be a modeling of the negotiations: a look at what the official peace talks could and should look like. On January 22, the women will stage a peace rally outside the official talks. You can sign their petition to the international community and watch the Summit.
The Syrian women and their global allies understand that the Syria crisis is so deep and complex that it will take a long time to end the fighting and even longer to rebuild, but they see no other option. “We are lawyers, engineers and professors; we are housewives, nurses and other medical professionals; we are 50 percent of society and we are determined to stop the war,” said Rafif Jouejati, director of FREE-Syria (the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria). “If Geneva II fails, then we will keep going to make Geneva III, IV or V work. We will keep pushing the men who are making war until they make peace.”