During the August 2020 meeting of the Constitutional Committee, the United Nations-facilitated constituent assembly to adopt a new Constitution of Syria as part of the peace process, the lack of gender parity was clear. Only thirteen of the forty-five-member drafting committee were women. The committee has three delegations—the regime, opposition, and civil society—each of which have fifteen members and who failed to ensure equal representation of women. There were seven women in the civil society delegation, four women representing the regime, and two in the opposition’s delegation. This lack of equal representation illustrates ideological resistance to women’s meaningful participation, particularly in the Syrian regime and opposition.  

The lack of parity here, as was the case during the failed Astana process, prevents women’s meaningful participation and has led to superficial involvement in peace processes—whereby women’s presence in negotiating parties is primarily an effort to appease the international community. The failure of the regime and opposition to provide meaningful leadership opportunities to women is not unexpected. However, as the Constitutional Committee’s experience shows, the UN’s failure to include women in its delegations through the Geneva peace process has undermined the legitimacy of its own resolution on women’s participation in peace processes (UNSCR 1325). This compounds the UN’s already limited ability to hold the Assad regime and opposition accountable to international gender standards and the conflict’s unique impact on women.

Women’s ability to cement peacekeeping efforts and improve their efficacy is well understood. A recent study found that ceasefires are 35 percent more likely to last at least fifteen years if women participate in their negotiation. The inclusion of local women during peace negotiations, according to a quantitative analysis examining 156 peace agreements increased the probability of cessation of violence within a year by 24.9 percent. 1 Despite this evidence, between 1992 and 2019 women constituted—on average—only 13 percent of negotiators, 6 percent of mediators, and 6 percent of signatories in major peace processes worldwide.

The Syrian war has uniquely impacted women. Gender parity in peace and development efforts will work to address Syria’s shifting gender dynamics and contribute towards the creation of an equitable post-war society. 

The Syrian war has uniquely impacted women. Gender parity in peace and development efforts will work to address Syria’s shifting gender dynamics and contribute towards the creation of an equitable post-war society. 

Over the course of the Syrian conflict, women have become key economic providers in a system that is ill-equipped to provide the basic services they need for survival. This is in part due to the high male casualties in the war—almost a third of households inside Syria, nearly 40 percent in Jordan, and 50 percent of Syrian households in Greece are headed by women. These women struggle to cover their families’ basic costs, face enormous responsibilities, and many have become the head of house due to the death, imprisonment, or displacement of their male family members. In documenting Syrian women’s sentiments about this change, UNHCR found that about 95 percent of women in host countries—where Syrian women may earn less than half a man’s daily wage—indicated that this role change was negative. Syrian women have less access to work opportunities than men and are often reliant on aid. Working women face an increased risk of violence and these economic hardships have contributed towards numerous hardships, including rising rates in child marriage.

In addition to these challenges, Syrian women have advocated for their inclusion in the UN-led  peace process. In 2000, the UN ratified SCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and recommended that women comprise at least 30 percent of participants in peace talks in 2002. While the UN can neither compel the delegations to honor UNSCR 1325 nor impose gender quotas, the UN’s failure to consistently include women in its own delegations throughout the Syrian peace process has undermined UNSCR 1325’s legitimacy. Shortly after the first UN-led peace talk in 2012, the UN released the Geneva I Communique which states, “Women must be fully present in all aspects of the transition.”

However, these talks did not include any women until 2016—despite Syrian civil society actors’ activism. Beginning on January 11, 2014, UN Women hosted a two-day conference in Geneva with approximately fifty Syrian women. The participants demanded that the UN place pressure on the negotiating parties to guarantee women’s effective participation “on all negotiating teams and committees in a proportion of no less than 30 percent for the duration of the negotiation process.” On January 17, 2014, female Syrian civil society leaders briefed the Security Council in a closed meeting where they allegedly demanded women’s meaningful inclusion in Geneva II and transitional peace processes.  However, at the 2014 Geneva II talks—which began five days later—there was not a single woman in the UN, regime, or opposition delegations. When women were present, they were dramatically outnumbered—women comprised only 15 percent of the opposition and government delegations at the December 2017 Geneva talks.  Moreover, despite the UN’s public statements about the importance of women’s inclusion, in 2019 only 1 percent of the Security Council’s discussions on Syria included references to women’s participation.

In contrast, the UN chose twenty-three women out of fifty members for the 150-person committee of the Constitutional Committee’s civil society bloc, and seven women out of fifteen in the forty-five-member committee. These numbers exemplify a commitment to women’s participation by Syrian civil society and the UN, which should have been demonstrated since the inception of UNSCR 1325. While the UN’s creation of the Women’s Advisory Board (WAB) was laudable, ultimately it was a superficial effort. As a consultative committee chosen by western actors, WAB does not participate in peace talks and there is no guarantee that their recommendations will be implemented. The UN could have increased the WAB’s effectiveness by including Syrians in the selection committee and creating it as a delegative body.

The regime and opposition, meanwhile, have used women as tools in peace processes to boost their international standing while also repeatedly undermining women’s empowerment and reinforcing gender inequality. The regime’s lack of commitment to gender equity is demonstrated by discriminatory laws, including the reduced penalty for honor killings, the lack of women in the political sphere, and the regime’s failure to execute gender equality initiatives. The Syrian government pledged to increase women’s participation in public life and decision making to 30 percent as part of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2005. However, by 2020 women only hold 13 percent of parliamentary seats, which is below global and regional averages.

The opposition has also demonstrated a lack of commitment to gender equality. Opposition delegations have marginalized women in the peace process by treating them as experts, rather than delegates, thereby compartmentalizing their skills and taking gender parity out of the broader discussion. Former UN Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura stated in 2016 that although the opposition had women at the table, “they don’t talk. They’re not allowed to talk, or they are not given an opportunity to intervene,” further noting that “they are on the margins. They are considered experts rather than actual delegates.” According to Samira al-Moubayed—a female member of the High Negotiations Committee and a member of the Constitutional Committee’s civil society bloc—the marginalization of women in the peace process reflects a lack of conviction by Syrian actors to the importance of women’s role in these negotiations. The opposition’s media portrayal of women as victims also reinforces harmful gender biases and stereotypes which are significant barriers to their meaningful participation. The global lack of conviction is rooted in a long history of women’s marginalization in Syria, making it imperative for the UN to lead by example in promoting a gender equitable peace process.

The global lack of conviction is rooted in a long history of women’s marginalization in Syria, making it imperative for the UN to lead by example in promoting a gender equitable peace process.

While societal barriers and patriarchal values contributed to the marginalization of Syrian women in the peace process, the UN reinforces this marginalization. By failing to adhere to the Women, Peace, and Security agenda throughout the Geneva peace process, the UN undermined the legitimacy of UNSCR 1325 and further contracted its limited capacity to hold member states accountable. Peace negotiations have long failed to be gender equitable processes; a study examining female participation found that between 1990 and 2014, women signed only 13 out of 130 peace agreements and overall the number of female signatories did not increase since passage of UNSCR 1325. UN Women has reported on the importance and lack of women’s participation. In order to work toward a gender equitable approach in future peace negotiations, the UN should elevate UN Women from being categorized as ‘Other Entities and Bodies’ to part of their ‘Funds and Programmes.’ By increasing the operational capacity of UN Women, the United Nations could incorporate this branch into formal peace negotiations to secure and safeguard women’s participation.

Abby O’Keefe is a research intern for Sada at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

 

1 Stone, L. (2014) Women Transforming Conflict: A Quantitative Analysis of Female Peacemaking. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2485242 (Accessed November 6, 2020).