Why Canada’s Syria strategy should include a strong focus on women
Late last month, a group of Syrian women civil society leaders arrived in Geneva ready to engage in the single most important process to determine the future of their country—peace talks. They waited a full week for the warring factions to show up, and in the meantime graciously accepted the role as “advisors” offered to them by UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. But when representatives of the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition finally did appear in Geneva, it was time for the women to leave.
That’s because, unlike the UN-hosted official negotiators—men from the warring factions—the women did not have the budget to stay any longer in one of Europe’s most expensive cities. The women packed their bags and left, and three days later the talks broke down.
When the talks resume again in Geneva, the scenario will likely be repeated: the UN will pick up the tab for the official negotiators’ expenses. Meanwhile representatives of women’s organizations will be couch surfing, and stretching their limited resources to participate on the sidelines of talks aimed at ending a war that has mercilessly, and repeatedly, targeted civilians.
As Canada redefines its role in the Middle East, and in Syria in particular, the government that has made “Because it’s 2016” it’s unofficial tag line would be wise to think more about how it can support Syrian women.
The Canadian government recently announced new spending on food, medicine and humanitarian assistance to refugees running for their lives in Syria and money to help neighbouring states including Jordan deal with millions of refugees. Canada is also still supporting the aerial bombing campaign through refueling and surveillance operations.
Given how many civilians are being injured, killed or displaced by aerial bombardments in Syria, one can reasonably question the wisdom of investing in a strategy that results in more Syrians fleeing the country in search of asylum. It’s an illogical tactic that Syrian women’s groups are trying to end, along with the war.
But making the case for peace through dialogue and diplomacy is greatly hampered, as international donor money largely goes to military operations and secondarily to humanitarian assistance. Bolstering the power and influence of women peacemakers is rarely a priority.
International donors tend to view supporting women peacemakers as a question of equity—and therefore easier to disregard—and not as an effective strategy that actually works. However, recent evidence shows us just that: women make a huge difference in peace processes.
Last October marked the 15th anniversary of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, also known as the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. As part of the anniversary, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon commissioned a review of the implementation of UNSCR 1325. The resulting Global Study included analysis of peace processes since the Cold War, and the conclusion was clear: When women’s groups are able to strongly influence negotiations or push for a peace deal an agreement was almost always reached. Furthermore, agreements reached with the participation of women were 35% more likely to last for fifteen years or longer.
So if women’s presence at the peace table makes such a difference, why are women still largely excluded?
According to the Global Study, the “failure to allocate sufficient resources and funds has been perhaps the most serious and persistent obstacle to the implementation of the women, peace and security agenda over the past 15 years. … The world continues to invest in short-term militarized responses rather than long-term conflict prevention strategies.”
Few donor countries invest in women’s organizations working to implement the women, peace and security agenda. The few that were doing so, mostly the Nordic countries, are now diverting their Official Development Assistance (ODA) to addressing the refugee crisis domestically. Women working for peace inside Syria are way down on donor countries’ priority list.
Yet, since the start of the war in 2011, Syrian women have negotiated local ceasefires, secured the release of detainees, combated child recruitment and arms proliferation, and promoted co-existence and transitional justice. Women have also documented human rights abuses, opened temporary schools, and exposed local officials who failed to hand out donated food and medical supplies.
They do so without international funding, and while putting their lives at risk.
After the peace talks stalled last month, the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy—a group that has been developing a peace plan since 2013—pleaded for an end to the bloodshed and for a return to the peace table: “Every day we lose in making peace is another day of suffering”.
Canada has a chance to demonstrate true leadership, and spearhead a global commitment to an agenda that is not just about equity but also about giving peace a fighting chance. It’s time to fund Syrian women’s organizations, and bring Syrian women to the peace table now.