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For five years, women have protested, fought, delivered aid, brokered peace and documented atrocities on the ground in Syria.
Yet, when Syrians tried to end the war, women were sidelined. They have been largely absent from the negotiating table in rounds of failed talks since 2012.
Fresh United Nations-brokered peace talks kicked off in Geneva this week, and many hope that a mostly observed cessation of hostilities and partial withdrawal of Russian troops are signs that the negotiations will be more successful than those of the past.
One aspect of the talks has already inspired some cautious optimism: More women are involved than ever before, but it remains to be seen how much influence they will wield over the discussions.
Last month, the U.N. announced the formation of the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board — a group of 12 Syrian women from different professional, political and religious backgrounds to advise the U.N. special envoy overseeing the peace talks. The formation of the group, which is the first-ever formal women’s advisory board to a U.N. envoy, is a “historic moment,” said U.N. Women.
On the eve of the talks, Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy on Syria, made a point of meeting with the women’s board.
“I strongly believe that this is a golden opportunity for Syrian women,” Mouna Ghanem, founder of the Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace and a member of the advisory board, told The WorldPost. Now it’s crucial for the board to be able to influence all parties at the peace talks, and bring the women’s agenda to the table, she said.
U.N. mediators plan to meet with the advisory board daily as they shuttle between negotiations with the opposition and regime teams. Each of those 15-person negotiating teams has three female delegates, a higher proportion of women than they have had during previous talks. The opposition team also set up its own all-female team of advisers last month.
The increased female participation in the talks is the result of years of tireless pressure by Syrian women.
Before the last major attempt at peace talks in 2014, Syrian women set up a network of civil society organizations called the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy, or SWIPD, to advocate for their ability to play a greater role in the negotiations.
The talks didn’t go anywhere, but SWIPD continued to keep up the pressure, as did other prominent Syrian women’s groups, including Ghanem’s organization and a network called I Am She.
“Women are bearing the brunt of the war and keeping the country together,” Randa Slim, the director of the Middle East Institute’s Initiative for Track II Dialogues, told The WorldPost. “They are keeping the narrative of a united Syria alive.”
One sign of the advocates’ success came in December, when the U.N. Security Council adopted a road map for peace in Syria and emphasized the importance of women participating in negotiations.
De Mistura has also made the inclusion of women a much higher priority since taking over from previous U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in 2014, experts said.
Yet many say the progress is long overdue and doesn’t go far enough.
Several women’s advocates said they’re concerned about how much the advisory group will be able to influence the negotiations, arguing it should be a third party to the talks or directly advise the opposition and regime teams rather than just the U.N. envoy.
“It is a small step in the right direction,” the Middle East Institute’s Slim said. “As long as we keep women in a separate group their impact is limited… they need to be at the heart of the negotiation.”
“We don’t want this group to be a rubber stamp to what’s agreed by a roomful of men,” she said.
Several advocates also argued that women need to make up 25 or 30 percent of the negotiating teams to really have clout, and that much depends on whether women get leadership positions on committees that may be formed to work on specific issues, like detainees, if talks progress.
“What we are aspiring for is not only participation,” Ghanem said at a press conference at the U.N. on Tuesday, speaking by videolink from Geneva. “We are aspiring to be the decision-makers. And we have a long way to go.”
The future of Syria depends on women having seats at the negotiating table, advocates say. International studies show that peace agreements reached with women’s involvement are more likely to last.
“Peace processes are not only about dividing the pie, but about reconciliation, economic development, education, transitional justice,” Slim said. “Women are already dealing with these issues, so they are in the best position to come up with practical solutions.”
“It’s not just good will to include women, it’s pragmatic,” she said.
Women have played a prominent role in protests and documenting human rights violations since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011. Men make up the majority of fighters in Syria, and women in refugee camps and communities across Syria have increasingly taken on leadership roles in their absence — including working in field hospitals, keeping schools open and brokering local ceasefires.
Yet, peace talks tend to overlook how important women are in Syrian society, Ghanem said.
“Are we going to let those who destroyed Syria, who committed huge human rights violations against women and children, destroyed the country infrastructure, created with their actions the horrible ISIS — are we going to let them design the future of Syria?” she asked.
Allowing Syrian women to strongly influence the talks could set an important precedent for other conflicts in the region, said Mohammad Naciri, the regional director for U.N. Women in the Arab world.
“We’ve already been working with Yemeni women and Libyan women towards the same model,” he said.
“It’s time we women take our rightful place,” Zainab Bangura, the U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, said Wednesday at a U.N. breakfast meeting on peace and equality, lamenting the huge efforts that were needed just to get Syrian women a role at the peace talks.
“You cannot have half a peace. … There is no way you can actually have anything if half of the population is left out,” she said.