Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Lessons from Syria on women's empowerment during conflict

A gathering of Women from Women Now network in besieged eastern Ghouta in Solidarity with Daraya women campaign (April 2016)

 ' “I risked my life to participate in demonstrations against dictatorship and the oppression of Bashar Al-Assad. I’m not afraid of anyone, anymore. I’m a free woman.” (Syrian woman activist from Women Now’s network, 2012).

 In this quote you hear the voice of a capable and strong woman. Yet both in regime-controlled areas and in other regions of Syria, women’s rights have become instrumentalised by political forces seeking legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. From prior to the deterioration of the crisis until the present day, there have been commentators who have focused on the ‘Western’ and apparently ‘emancipated’ personality of Asma Al-Assad and other women associated with the regime, or the recent nomination of a woman to the head of the Syrian Parliament. Likewise, the women fighters of the Kurdish forces have also been the subject of significant attention by the Western media. Much of the media coverage of these women plays into longer-term romanticized and orientalist tropes. Meanwhile, the demands of thousands of Syrian women activists are being routinely ignored. How are we here and what is to be done?

 The Assad regime has long instrumentalised women’s rights to legitimate its dictatorship in a way similar to other regimes in the region. The Assad regime’s discourse has major blind spots. For example, according to a report published by the UNFPA in November 2011, one in three women living in Syria has suffered domestic violence, with the prevalence of domestic violence in 2005 one of the highest in the world (with a percentage of 67%, Syria is second after Ethiopia 71%, and before Bangladesh 53%). These figures were gathered before the conflict in Syria and reflect phenomena hidden behind state propaganda pre-2011 which instead trumpeted the participation of elite women in the political sphere.

 Moreover, several Syrian laws contain discriminatory provisions against women, for example the penalty for honour killing is still softer than for other kinds of murder and no legislation specifically prohibits gender-based discrimination. Indeed, the discrimination of ISIS against women is rooted – at least in part – in the Syrian family code.

 An international approach to women’s participation that really listened to women would help them through the protection of basic human rights and to support their demands, as should have happened during the Daraya campaign. By the end of March 2016, the siege of the city of Daraya was in its worse stage. Women in our network told us that they had not been able to eat in the past 48 hours, that their children were surviving by eating grass soup. Shocked, we shared this information in all our centres, presenting videos and organizing Skype calls with women in Daraya to understand what was happening there.

 A women’s group in the city wrote a letter to demand the end of the siege and the letter was diffused throughout all our centres. Women organized gatherings and wrote and signed in English and French, taking advantage of what they had learnt in our centres. They spend days and nights working to prepare the gatherings as documented in their diaries. Some of them wrote long letters which were sent to EU parliamentarians. Then on 1st June, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) announced its intention to send aid.

 The women felt that for the first time, their voices had been heard.

 Unfortunately, two months later, the women of Daraya were forced to send another letter about the use of napalm by the Syrian regime against their city. The letter remained unanswered as on the same day a decision was made to evacuate the civilian from the city opening the door to a new episode of Syrian tragedy: the forced displacement of population.

 Syrian women have shown incredible resilience and commitment to sustaining civilian activities, including the pursuit of peaceful livelihoods and education. Even as the bombs have rained down on the districts in which they live, women have continued to attend training to empower themselves. After one of the Women Now For Development centres was relocated due to the horrific deterioration of attacks in that area, we were contacted by one young woman asking us to maintain its presence, explaining that it was her one lifeline to education and hope: ‘Please keep it open, it’s my only way to replace my university studies’. Another young woman in a northern area of Syria under daily Russian airstrikes shared with us her happiness at winning a book-reading contest – having read twenty books over the previous two months.

 Syrian women will be the pillars of any future democratic process in Syria. Women have been at the frontline of confronting violence, corruption and fundamentalism. They have organized against each of these at the community level and have issued statements with detailed recommendations on how to tackle them. Their efforts deserve support from national and international actors.'

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