A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
Jenny Enarsson, Oxfam's Syria crisis response gender advisor, explains why including Syria's women in negotiations is critical for the peace process.
A few days after the high-profile summit on ending sexual violence in conflict hosted by the UK government and Angelina Jolie in London, a group of Syrian women met in Amman, Jordan. There were no celebrities at this meeting, and no cameras. In fact, if there had been cameras many of the women would not have been able to participate.
This was a meeting of the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy (SWIPD) – a network of women’s civil society organizations - to develop plans to influence a political solution to the ongoing crisis that continues to ravage Syria and send shockwaves through the wider region.
Three long years into the conflict, the atmosphere in Amman was frank and unsentimental. One participant remarked: ‘The international community has been looking on while we got to where we are now – between two fires, between two hells.’
Women's role essential
The coalition has 49 members and was formed in the run-up to the long-awaited Geneva II peace negotiations, which began in January this year and collapsed after several weeks of talks between parties to the conflict.
Some of the network members are well established organizations with international links, others are small groups responding to a situation on the ground that simply cannot be ignored.
In the months before Geneva II, these women civil society leaders from inside and outside Syria put together a shared vision and recommendations for how to ensure that peace building and recovery processes involve the active participation of women, and that they address gender issues and the priorities of women’s civil society groups.
We know from conflicts around the world that higher participation of women raises the likelihood of success of peace building processes, but in the end women’s organizations were denied a seat at the table in Geneva.
Civil society working together
In Amman, the focus was firmly on planning the way forward. An action plan was drawn up to set the future direction of the initiative. The Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy’s main focus is to advocate for the resumption of peace negotiations, but they are convinced that peace has to be built on the international, regional and local levels at the same time.
This means that in parallel to the high-level political discussions between governments, the UN and other international actors; national civil society as well as community based organizations and individuals all have to be involved and working together for peace to be sustainable in the long term.
The coalition argues that in this work, women’s roles as bearers of the civil peace and security message must be enhanced. ‘Sometimes Western countries just want to see us as mothers and wives and sisters. But we won’t be stereotyped. We have a right to sit at the negotiating table and decide the future of our country. That is our real role, and it must be taken seriously.’
International support essential
In order for such diverse actors to be able to collaborate for peace, trust has to be built so that Syrians of different affiliations can work together:
‘We need to start a peace process that is based on shared interests and concerns of the people across the board. The Syrian people are tired, they want a peaceful solution. The extremists are 5 percent of people on each side – we need to target the 90 percent in the middle.’
But it is not only the women’s organizations who have to coordinate their efforts. The same goes for the international community, and coalition members were clear on what they want. One participant explained:
‘We need the international community to apply pressure so that peace talks are resumed. And we need support in conveying our voice in the peace process. We want the international community to help us build a more democratic State, the State that we dream of.’
Faith in Syria's women
As the meeting in Amman closed on the last day and everyone stood up to leave, one of the participants took the microphone:
‘Before we go, I want to tell you a story. A year ago, a group of armed fighters entered my village. They were very violent. 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. I would like to say to the international community: Have faith in Syrian women. We can do anything.’