(WOMENSENEWS)— Given the recent escalation in attacks on schools and hospitals that have killed hundreds in and near Aleppo and an ongoing government and military blockade of humanitarian aid to civilians, peace talks for Syria seem a long way off.
The talks are currently on hold and any ongoing discussions are being channeled through the United Nations. The United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, recently announced he would not attempt to resume the stalled peace talks until August.
But when the process does resume, a civil society network composed primarily of Syrian female peace activists called I Am She, headquartered in southern Turkey, is hoping to play a role.
“There isn’t real participation from civil society and I think there is more to come, because civil society is working really hard for this,” says Samo Al Khateeb, a project coordinator for I Am She who spoke with Women’s eNews via Skype. “Right now in Syria women are the majority of the population. They are running the everyday life.”
Al Khateeb says that Syrian women from civil society coalitions remain sidelined from the peace process and I Am She would like to change that.
The network, formed in 2013, coordinates about 350 Syrian women working within and outside of the war-torn country to organize and represent the voices of their communities on local, national and international levels, he says. Politically, members come from all sides, representing pro- and anti-government political factions and options.
Their main demands include increased participation by women in any talks that resume, new constitutional rights for women in Syria and ongoing humanitarian aid to Syrians, a fragile issue that has clouded the peace process given blocked access to civilians.
A Landmark Move
Earlier this year, in what was widely seen as a landmark move, de Mistura convened a 12-member advisory board of Syrian women to provide recommendations and counsel to the peace talks then still underway. This board was reportedly considered a first step to women gaining a minimum 30 percent representative goal in future delegations and governance.
Since this board is under the United Nations, though, it is not considered the same as the direct participation of civil society groups. It has also been criticized for its lack of transparency and representation.
The war has killed at least 470,000 Syrians in the five years of conflict leading up to early 2016, according to a Syrian human rights group. Another group estimates that over a four-year period, more than 20,000 Syrian women specifically were killed, mostly at the hands of the Syrian government forces.
This week it was announced that more than 65 million people were displaced in 2015 – the largest amount ever documented in one year by the United Nation’s refugee. Syria, with 4.9 million refugees, was among the three countries that produced half of the internationally displaced.
Sexual violence as a weapon to terrorize and control women and children, as well as men, is recognized as a practice government and other forces, like the Islamic State, undertake in this conflict.
Syrian women have lobbied for a prime role in the Syrian peace talks for the last several years, before the first round of talks launched in Geneva in 2014. The efforts have resulted in limited formal representation, with three women standing among both of the 15-member delegations (representing the Syrian government and the opposition).
Peacebuilding has been documented as a practice that gives Syrian female activists power in the midst of violence, as well as a means to help women connect either to their role as mothers or simply to being part of society.
Nearly 16 years ago the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution, known as 1325, that recognized both the vulnerability women face in conflict zones and the need to increase women’s involvement in peace and reconciliation processes.
The benefits for this inclusiveness are broad, extending beyond the need to address such issues as gender-based violence in peace agreements. Peace processes that include women have a 35 percent greater chance of lasting. Enhanced influence of women’s groups also means agreements are more likely to be implemented.
“Peace is more likely to last if women are involved,” says Marie O’Reilly, head of research at the Washington, D.C., -based Institute for Inclusive Security, focused on women’s role in war and peace. “It’s not a zero sum game. It’s in the interest of all people seeking peace.”
The struggles of Syrian women to play a representative role in peace negotiations is an all-too familiar problem for local women’s rights activists in conflict zones and their international advocates.
Despite various international policy measures that guarantee women’s participation in peace talks and the recognized benefits of their inclusion, women still fight to help their country forge a way into reconciliation and peace.
Women constituted just 10 percent of the negotiators at peace tables between 1992 and 2011.
“You could just delete ‘Syria’ from this discussion and put in Northern Ireland, Liberia, Northern Mali or South Africa. It is the same everywhere,” says Madeleine Rees, the secretary general for the Geneva-based nonprofit Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which has consulted with Syrian women and coordinated parallel, female-led peace talks.
“It just reflects on the incredible difficulty of a system that does not know how to include women and is very intransigent to change,” says Rees, who spoke in a phone interview.
Progress in participation has been spotty over the years following conflicts around the world. While women were excluded, or included at marginal levels, from the 1990s talks that brokered peace in Northern Ireland and the 2008 Erbil Agreement in Iraq, a quota helped women secure 30 percent representation at the Yemen negotiations from 2013 to 2014. A similar standard also led women to earn Constituent Assembly seats in a 2008 post-conflict Nepal.
“On the whole we have not seen dramatic increases in women participating in peace talks,” says Liesl Gerntholtz, the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division, in a recent phone interview. “It is … a very difficult thing for women to penetrate in a meaningful way, despite the fact that research shows there is a real benefit to having women in the negotiations.”