By Anna Applebaum
The peace talks aimed at resolving the Syrian conflict, which were expected to resume this week in Geneva, Switzerland, have been delayed, as international consensus is still lacking on who should be invited from Syria’s splintered opposition groups. Today – the original target date set by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura – participating parties were set to begin negotiations with the goal of ending the five-year conflict. Among the anticipated participants were the Syrian government, several opposition groups, and members of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), such as the Arab League, the European Union, the United States, Russia, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and others. Notably absent from this list are any representatives of women’s organizations, and any women negotiators.
The marked absence of women from these peace talks is important, if unsurprising. Women have comprised less than four percent of signatories to peace agreements that were signed from 1992 to 2011. The numbers are just as bleak for those participating in negotiations. Over the same period, women were less than four percent of all participants and less than 10 percent of negotiators at peace talks. When Track 1 peace processes are taking place – when high-level discussions are being held on cease-fires, new constitutions, and transitional justice mechanisms – women are simply not in the room.
At the Syria peace talks, there will be no representatives from women’s organizations and limited participation of women negotiators. The exclusion of Syrian women is all the more egregious given their intensely active mobilization throughout the conflict, including their significant role in the initial protests against the regime, their dangerous and critical work documenting abuses during the conflict, and their unique capacity to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians. Women’s civil society organizations have also played key roles in advocating for peace. One such group, the Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace, has been lobbying for a peaceful transition to a democratic state since its creation in 2012, only a year into the conflict.
Syrian women have been actively petitioning the United Nations to include women’s civil society organizations in their country’s peace talks. Before an earlier attempt at peace negotiations, during the Geneva II Conference in 2014, a diverse group of Syrian women organized a two-day conference with the goal of gaining access to the male-dominated negotiating process. At the conclusion of the conference, the group released a joint statement through UN Women, enumerating their demands. In a three-part document, the women addressed their priorities on the cessation of violence and improving the humanitarian situation in Syria; their demands to the negotiating parties; and their demands regarding Syrian women’s participation in the peace process. Other women’s civil society organizations are joining the calls for inclusive peace talks. MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization, published an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stating that the international community is failing its obligations of ensuring that women have substantive roles during formal peace processes.
The near total lack of women’s participation during peace negotiations has direct and serious consequences on the transition to and establishment of lasting peace, and on the rebuilding of state institutions. Women are particularly impacted by both the short- and long-term effects of conflict, and their unique perspectives, needs, and abilities must be considered for sustainable peace and post-conflict development. During conflicts, gender-based violence and sexual exploitation are used as strategies to destabilize families and communities; women can become the only source of income for their families as husbands and brothers become increasingly involved in the conflict; and women’s roles as caregivers are strained as social services are stalled or halted while needs increase. Women also participate in conflicts as violent actors themselves, whether providing material and financial support or as violent combatants.
As conflicts subside, women are well equipped to participate in post-conflict reconstruction, with their participation in markets serving as catalysts for economic revitalization, and as their ties to local community structures can facilitate peacebuilding efforts. Including women’s diverse, overlapping and conflicting needs and abilities may complicate already complex peace negotiations, but realistically portrays how the conflict was lived and remembered. Sustainable peace simply cannot be achieved without the recognition of women’s needs, experiences and capabilities.
The structural exclusion of women in formal peace processes is not only shortsighted, but also against international legal frameworks. United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 calls for women’s participation in all levels of decision-making, specifically peace negotiations. UNSCR 1889, adopted in 2009, reiterates the importance of women’s participation in peace processes as an integral part to conflict resolution and sustainable peace efforts. All members of the United Nations must abide by these resolutions, but their impact has been severely limited in implementation. Out of 585 peace treaties signed over the past twenty years, only 16 percent contain any specific references to women. It is clear that without the presence of women at the negotiating table, their specific challenges and opportunities for resilience will remain unrecognized and underutilized.
Despite the sustained organizing from Syrian women, their presence at the peace negotiations is not being discussed. Yet this week’s delay may provide an opportunity for more inclusive negotiations. We call on those responsible to uphold international obligations by ensuring women’s full and substantial participation in the Syria peace talks. Invitations may still be sent to Syrian women activists, Syrian women’s organizations, and Syrian women peacemakers. International precedent demands it and rigorous research demonstrates that it is an essential step in creating lasting peace.
Anna Applebaum is the 2015-2016 Hillary Rodham Clinton Research Fellow with the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She received her Master of Public Service from the Clinton School of Public Service, where she served as student body president. She previously worked on developing women’s leadership at Vital Voices Global Partnership as a McLarty Global Fellow and Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist. Ms. Applebaum’s work experience includes developing organizational infrastructure for international non-profits, working with street children in Rwanda, researching food insecurity in Arkansas and interning at the White House. She graduated summa cum laude from Washington University in St. Louis with a B.A. in the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities and French.