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A Syrian woman walks past the wreckage of a vehicle at the site of suicide bombings n the town of Sayyida Zeinab, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on January 31, 2016. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

Women in conflict

Syria peace talks will include women, but will their voices be heard?

By Colleen Curry on February 3, 2016

As representatives from the Syrian government and rebel groups sit down to peace talks to try and bring an end to the country’s long civil war this week, those present at the negotiation table may include, to a greater degree than ever before, women.

The country’s brutal war between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and various rebel factions has dragged on for five years, and seen half the Syrian population flee their homes, dispersing refugees across the country and into neighboring countries. Many of those who remain, and who now live in refugee camps, are women, according to experts and advocates who said that their ground-level perspective demands greater inclusion in this round of peace talks. “Women are on the front lines,” Melissa G. Dalton, a fellow and Chief of Staff of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Women in the World on Tuesday.

“They aren’t necessarily in the fight itself, but they are the population that’s still in Syria and seeing what’s causing people to leave,” Dalton said. “Bringing those voices to the table might strengthen the imperative to deal with the humanitarian concerns as well as military and diplomatic concerns.”

United Nations (UN) special envoy Staffan de Mistura (C-L) sits facing Syria's main opposition group during Syrian peace talks at the UN Offices in Geneva on February 1, 2016. Syria's main opposition group met formally on February 1 for the first time with UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura in Geneva for talks aimed at ending the country's civil war. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura (C-L) sits facing Syria’s main opposition group during Syrian peace talks at the U.N. Offices in Geneva on February 1, 2016. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations’ envoy to the talks, diplomat Staffan de Mistura, announced Tuesday that he would invite 12 Syrian women from women’s organizations to participate in the talks as part of a Women’s Advisory Board, to “allow Syrian women to articulate their concerns and ideas and present recommendations, covering all topics discussed during the talks.”

Randa Slim, the director of the Middle East Institute Initiative for Track II Dialogues, is working with activists and other stakeholders participating in the unofficial talks. Speaking from Lebanon, Slim said the advisory committee is a good step but that women should be included among the top leadership of the negotiating teams. She praised the opposition coalition for including more women than that of the Syrian government, which has occasionally used a female spokesperson but has not otherwise meaningfully included women in the process, she said. “That’s one level of including women, the support level. Then there’s the level of the negotiating table itself, and there are some women who were present [Monday] in a meeting between the envoy and the opposition delegation, but I don’t think it’s enough. There are few women, not enough,” she said.

The women on the advisory group will be from different parts of Syrian society including law, medicine, non-government organizations, and citizens groups, she said.

A woman from Syria holds her baby as she arrives at the registration centre on the Greek island of Samos, after being rescued by the charity Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) while attempting to reach the Greek island of Agathonisi, in Dodecanese, southeastern Aegean Sea, overnight on January 16, 2016. Maltese-based NGO MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) rescued 48 migrants and refugees near the Agathonisi island. / AFP / ANGELOS TZORTZINIS (Photo credit should read ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman from Syria holds her child as she arrives at the registration centre on the Greek island of Samos, after being rescued while attempting to reach the Greek island of Agathonisi, on January 16, 2016. (ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

And while she would like to see more women around the negotiating table, including among the U.N. delegation sent to broker the deal, Slim said it is more important to the process to have women’s voices heard by top-level decision makers so they understand the humanitarian crisis on the ground. “Women’s role in the Syrian conflict has evolved beyond the image of the docile Arab woman,” Slim said. “We are seeing them involved now not necessarily in the fighting but in the political work, on the opposition and regime side.”

Women in Syria, she said, have become almost solely responsible for keeping the “fabric of the society” together as the men have gone off to fight. They have taken on greater roles in education, NGO work, in the media, in leadership positions within communities and refugee camps, and in documenting human rights abuses and disseminating that information around the world. “The question now and the hope is that with this advisory committee that the envoy has announced, there will be a structured process to bring input from women’s activities on the ground in Syria, in the refugee camps, into the negotiation room,” she said.

The current talks, with the inclusion of the new advisory committee, would include women to a greater degree than any comparable peace talks involving civil wars in Arab society, Slim said. But the degree of influence the women would have on the process was still unclear, she said.

High Negotiations Committee spokesman Salem al-Meslet kisses a banner showing pictures of children killed during the Syrian war, at the Places des Nations outside of the United Nations Offices on February 2, 2016 in Geneva. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Women’s roles in peace talks have also come to be seen as vital because of their ability to influence a long-lasting peace deal, according to Slim and Dalton. “The nature of the conflict right now is that it’s going to require a generational solution. It’s a generation challenge to take on extremism, like ISIS and those groups, and women can play a really strong role in shaping families and communities where young people are growing up to dissuade them from buying into these narratives,” Dalton said.

Women also play a key role in helping rebuild families and communities after a conflict ends, she added.

Slim said that women would be the ones to “stitch back the society’s fabric” after a peace deal is put in place and the fighting ends.

The talks are expected to continue this week. Earlier discussions attempting to bring about an end to the civil war in 2014 and 2015 failed to reach a peace deal.


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