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John Kerry, where are women’s voices in the Syria peace talks?

Today,
we face the prospect of a Middle East peace conference with disappointment at
its delay and frustration that, yet again, negotiators embrace a framework that
ignores the origins of the revolution and gives credence only to men with guns.

Watching
the spectacle of governments maneuvering for a place at the negotiating table,
one has to ask: where are the women who started this revolution? The reality in
Syria today is radically different from March 2011, when young women and men
across Syria united in peaceful demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Since then, the country has fractured, with
ISIL controlling large swaths of territory across Syria and Iraq; Kurdish
forces securing the north and pockets of control scattered between different
militias and rebel groups. The conflict has left over 6 million people
displaced, over three-quarters of a million refugees pushing into Europe
and thousands dying along the way.  

Women
who organized during the uprising are serving as local peacebuilders in the conflict. For example,
to the north in ISIL-controlled Deir Ezzor and the government-controlled
Al-Hasaka, women are working to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers and
small arms proliferation. In the contested city if Idlib women have organized
discussion workshops on the links between Islamic principles and democracy. In
Damascus, women are advocating for peace processes to include the political
solutions laid out in the Geneva I Communiqué.

Photo by Itab Azzam via 'Queens of Syria' – a film by Yasmin Fedda

And
they’re talking with each other. Last month MADRE, the Women’s International League for
Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and CUNY Law School organized a second Strategies for Change convening that brought
together women’s rights advocates from across Iraq and Syria. Together, they
are calling on the international community to include Syrian women in the peace
talks scheduled for next year.

Given that accords are often more successful and peace more likely
to prevail when women are included, it’s baffling that women remain the largest group of
stakeholders regularly excluded from official peace negotiations. It’s also
illegal under international law. So why are women
being left out? In December, Steffan de Mistura, the Special
Envoy for Syria
said, “Women's leadership and participation in conflict resolution are critical
for sustainable solutions. The engagement of women in shaping the future of
Syria is more important now than ever before.”

With
only “soft” commitments given by the UN, women peacebuilders who have long
demonstrated willingness and capacity to participate in talks have not received
any guarantees they will be included in the upcoming process.

Exclusion
from negotiations – whether based on religion, ethnicity, gender, or some other
protected class – is undemocratic and only fuels instability and conflict
renewal. With the threat of new talks being
run aground by uncompromising parties and state self-interest,
there is nothing to lose and much to gain from the potent addition of women to
the talks.

Syrian women refugees workshopping 'Trojan Women' in Amman. Photo, Itab Azzam

Peace treaties without women don’t work. This
was true for the demilitarized zone of El Caguan,
Colombia, where experts repeatedly cite the lack of women’s participation as
the key reason for years of failed peace talks. The
same was true for peace accords in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which should be chastening enough: no women
and no civil society members were permitted near the negotiations. Only
warlords were invited. Unsurprisingly, that peace agreement institutionalized a permanent state of ethnic division in an impossible
constitution. The result has been economic
devastation, absence of human rights, and, according to the United Nations, a
strong possibility of renewed conflict. Post-conflict experience
teaches us that when women are excluded from peace negotiations,
political solutions readily collapse. At minimum, accords without women reflect
the interests of the most powerful, failing to create sustainable measures to
protect those most affected.

Peace
agreements should not only be about an end to fighting but also about creating
conditions where people can thrive and societies can flourish. At the very
least, such accords should ensure conditions in which actors aren’t driven to
take up arms again. Where women have been included in
peacebuilding, they have built bridges across parties and issues while
meaningfully involving civil society in solutions that promote social change. For
example, in Northern Ireland, women
peacebuilders successfully
united activists across political and religious divides. In Sudan, women led demands for the inclusion of
social and economic relief into the final peace agreement.

As we
wait for negotiations, the violence will continue and the encroaching winter
will bring thousands of more deaths. Those dying will be the most vulnerable,
those involuntarily trapped between fighting factions, and those whom
humanitarian aid fails to reach. Yet, local peace organizers are not invited to
the anticipated talks, as if to signal that their stake in their own future and
the future of their country is somehow less important than men with guns.

Syrian refugee child, Jordan

Despite this dismissive treatment, Syrian women continue to organize to make their
voices heard and to convey the message that there are ways to peace. As the
international community takes tentative steps towards Syrian peace talks, why
not try something that’s age-tested and consistently proven to work? It’s time
to bring women to the table. And leaders like John Kerry should take note.
Syrian women are not just waiting to be included: they are demanding it.

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