Women of Syria, a strong constituency for peace
“We, the Syrian women, can—and may well be—the backbone of Syrian peace and reconciliation,” says Insaf Hamad, member of the first-ever Women’s Advisory Board, composed of 12 independent civil society representatives from diverse backgrounds, who consult regularly with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, raising matters that are missing from the agenda and providing recommendations to assist the peace talks. Their unanimous ask: resume the peace process, end the conflict in Syria.
In five years, the crisis in Syria has killed more than 250,000 people and rolled back human development achievements by almost 40 years. Some 4.8 million Syrians have been forced to leave the country and 6.5 million are internally displaced . Violent extremism is on the rise, along with gross human rights violations, including violence against women and girls. Often absent from the news are the voices of Syrian women, as a strong constituency for peace.
On 31 August, 2016, on the sidelines of its Executive Board session, UN Women organized a panel with members of the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, where they shared their experience and recommendations for lasting peace. Speaking at the event, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said, “I have seen first-hand how women who started at opposing ends, have moved closer together. I have seen mothers who have cried together…I have seen the determination of women to not only work for the people in their immediate constituencies, but to call for peace for everyone in the conflict…The work that you’re doing will not only serve [your] country and its women, it will be an example for the world, of what can be achieved when women come together.”
“The continued conflict in Syria is a fertile ground for terrorism. Any attempt to counter terrorism requires ending the conflict by revitalizing the political process,” said Nobhar Moustafa, leader of a Syrian women’s organization in Rojava and a member of the Women’s Advisory Board.
Moderating the event, Ambassador Karel van Oosterom, the Permanent Representative of the Mission of Netherlands to the United Nations highlighted, “The women in the Advisory Board have engaged in constructive dialogue and delivered useful recommendations, providing a glimmer of hope in a situation of atrocity.” Over the past three years, the governments of Netherlands and Norway have supported UN Women’s advocacy, coalition and capacity building efforts to increase Syrian women’s participation at all levels of the peace process.
Looking back at the peace process that started with Geneva I conference in 2012, when women were neither at the table, nor at the margins, Monira Hwaijeh, another member of the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, reflects: “In the lead-up to Geneva II in January 2014, UN Women convened a parallel meeting of Syrian women civil society representatives from diverse backgrounds, which led to the formation of the ‘Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy’ (SWIPID).” The initiative united and amplified the voices of Syrian women around a common agenda for peace. Six members of SWIPID now serve as members of the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, set up in February 2016.
The peace process resumed in January 2016, with Staffan de Mistura as the UN Special Envoy for Syria, and for the first time, Syrian women were part of the official delegations.
Coming from diverse and sometimes opposing backgrounds, the representatives of the Women’s Advisory Board have succeeded to transcend their differences and build consensus on many issues that remain contentious for the negotiating delegations. “Take the issue of prisoners and the kidnapped, for example,” says Ms. Hwaijeh. “Initially, the members of Women’s Advisory Board who were pro-regime, didn’t think much of the issue of prisoners, and the members who were aligned with the opposition, didn’t want to pay attention to the issue of the kidnappings. But we were able to reach consensus that both the kidnapped and the imprisoned must be released. The negotiating parties have not been able to reach this consensus yet.”
According to Hiba Qasas, Programme Advisor and Head of UN Women’s Arab States Section, coalition-building with and among the women of Syria is a necessary process of peace: “UN Women has been advocating with the women of Syria for their rightful role as voices of peace, building their leadership capacities, convening women from diverse backgrounds and opinions, and supporting them in the process of identifying and unifying around a common agenda for peace.”
The event in New York follows the “Syrian Women Peacemakers” conference held in Beirut, Lebanon, from 20 – 22 May, where over 130 Syrian women political and civil society activists forged a statement of unity, overcoming significant political divides.
 United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2016). Syria Crisis