Editor’s Note: Jamille Bigio is a senior fellow for women and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Rachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.
From their leadership in securing the recent peace accord in Colombia to their contributions to the 1998 agreement ending 20-plus years of conflict in Northern Ireland, to Liberia and to the Philippines, women have largely been the architects of peace – the kind that at first seemed impossible to find but was still somehow built to last.
If women could make it happen in these other parts of the world, why not try it in Syria? Why are women still not represented at the negotiating table?
We have studied women’s contributions to stability around the world, and a new interactive report includes in-depth case studies and an index tracking women’s participation in formal roles in peace processes from 1990 to the present. This and other research suggests that women’s participation in peace negotiations makes the resulting agreement 64% less likely to fail and 35% more likely to last at least 15 years. The case studies explore how women participate in peace processes and why their inclusion advances security.
Yet despite the overwhelming evidence and urgent need, Syrian women have still been underrepresented throughout the peace process.
Earlier this week marked the deadliest days in the rebel-held areas of Syria in three years.
Two-hundred-fifty civilians, including scores of women and children, were killed in two days in government airstrikes and rocket bombardments in Eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus. The attacks follow a recent escalation of violence as Russia and the Syrian government have pushed offensive operations into the suburbs of the besieged capital city; more than 700 people have been killed in the last three months. The UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, estimates the war has ended the lives of over 400,000 people and displaced more than 11 million from their homes.
The uptick in brutal violence underscores the dire need for diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflict. Yet the latest round of peace talks, held in the Russian city of Sochi, crumbled earlier this month, following unsuccessful United Nations-led talks held in January. As the UN, Russia, the United States and other nations pursue a political solution to end the Syrian war, they should invest in a proven strategy to make a deal more likely and more likely to last: the inclusion of women.
Why Syrian women should be at the table
Although UN-led talks began in 2012, it was not until 2016 that de Mistura appointed an advisory board of 12 female leaders to participate as third-party observers in the Geneva peace talks. Notably, the parallel Russian-led talks have mostly blocked women’s participation.
Women are also dramatically outnumbered in official roles in UN-led negotiations, comprising only 15% (four out of 26) of the opposition and government delegations at the December 2017 talks in Geneva. The newly launched Syrian Women’s Political Movement is aiming for a 30% quota for women’s participation to ensure an inclusive conflict-resolution process that delivers justice for all Syrian war victims.
Women’s participation: It works, period
Although women have been underrepresented in formal peace processes in Syria, women have still made valuable contributions to securing peace in local communities across the country. Here are five ways in which women have made a difference in Syrian peace efforts.
They broadened the agenda. Women at the negotiating table and in civil society have raised a number of issues critical to long-term peace and recovery, including delivery of aid and food, the release of detainees, inquiries into disappearances, and the effects of economic sanctions. In addition, the Syrian Civil Society Platform – a peace movement of nearly 200 organizations based in Syria and in neighboring refugee communities – includes 50% women at the national level and works through local networks to advise negotiators on the situation on the ground.
They worked across divides. With members drawn from across the political spectrum, the women’s advisory board has set an example for finding consensus on controversial issues that have stalled formal talks, including aid delivery and the release of detainees.
They have negotiated local ceasefires. Syrian women have successfully negotiated cessation of hostilities between armed actors in several areas to allow the passage of aid. In the Damascus suburb of Zabadani, for example, a group of local women pressured a militia to accept a 20-day ceasefire with regime forces. In Banias, the government heeded the demands of 2,000 women and children who blocked a highway, resulting in the release of hundreds of men from neighboring villages who had been illegally rounded up. In another area, one activist recounted that when a group of armed fighters entered their village, “the men couldn’t go outside because they would have been shot or abducted. In the end, it was the women who surrounded the fighters and drove them out of the village.”
They have done the work local governments should do. Women in civil society groups have also worked in field hospitals and schools, distributed food and medicine, and organized nonviolent protests. In one opposition-held city, women formed an all-female police brigade that has access to areas that their male counterparts do not, and provides families with critical services.
They have documented human rights violations. A number of women and women’s groups report kidnappings, detentions, disappearances and other human rights violations by armed actors in Syria. These activists include the founders of the Violation Documentation Center, which was one of the first organizations to report attacks involving chemical weapons. These groups are providing critical data and analysis to international watchdogs and parties to formal negotiations.
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Substantial evidence confirms that women’s participation in peace and security processes increases the likelihood and sustainability of peace. The United Nations, United States and other stakeholders in Syria should ensure that Syrian women have a seat at the table and an opportunity to help bring an end to Syria’s war.