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Europe Must Help Syria’s Women Make Peace
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Opinion piece in Huffington Post 21 July 2016 by Margot Wallström, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Hind Kabawat, High Negotiations Committee.
Violence in conflict does not discriminate. Men, women and children suffer from starvation, bombings, forced disappearances and torture. They equally experience traumatic loss when driven out of their homes. This is the case in Syria, where men and women and their families uniformly face the dire consequences of war, as evident in Darayya, Aleppo and across Syria.
Yet, it is men that clearly dominate the negotiation about Syria's future. By far, men outnumber women in the ranks of the International Syria Support Group. Men outnumber women in the Syrian negotiating parties. Any sidelining of women from the peace process will have serious consequences for Syria as well as Europe's future. To secure a lasting peace, Europe must actively work on ending the marginalisation of women and ensure that they have an active role in the peace process.
Women's involvement in a peace process is critical for any solution to last. We know this from experience. In former conflicts like El Salvador in the 1990s, Northern Ireland in 1997, and Somalia and Burundi in 2000 we saw the more women are involved in the peace process, the more likely peace will hold. Women's participation broadens the understanding of the underlying issues of the conflict and helps create more sustainable, comprehensive peace agreements that garner a wider base of support. Women are not just important partners in a peace process, they are essential for enduring peace.
Syrian women are essential for developing meaningful effective solutions. Earlier this year in preparations for the UN-led Geneva talks, a group of Syrian women representing the mosaic of Syria's different backgrounds established the opposition's Women's Consultative Committee. Sweden, with its feminist foreign policy, was quick to offer its support to the women. With its help, this team of Syrian women was active in all the opposition's efforts during the negotiations. They offered the peace process a clear, cogent view on how Syrians are working to achieve the political solution Syrians need. These women introduced innovative, detailed plans on how existing civilian state infrastructure could be reformed and integrated into a future democratic Syria working alongside Syrian civil society. Furthermore, the Syrian women secured a commitment from the opposition that any future Syrian government would have at least 30% women representation.
Last month four headstrong Syrian women from the group - several of them members of the Syrian opposition's High Negotiations Committee - travelled to Brussels to outline their vision for Syria to European politicians and senior officials. Among them was Bassma Kodmani, Alise Mofrej and Fadwa Mahmoud. These women are diverse in background and experience, yet expressed a uniform appeal to European leaders: stop the violence, break the sieges, release detainees and ensure accountability.
Women in Syria want a political solution. But a sustainable solution cannot be reached while their sons and daughters are starving in besieged cities, agonising from torture in Assad's prisons, systematically subjected to rape or other forms of sexual violence, or dying from bombs launched at schools and hospitals. Syrian women are calling on Europe for protecting civilians because they know this is the first step to a sustainable solution.
Europe - the EU and its member states - have provided more humanitarian aid than any other donor for the Syrian people. Despite such efforts, over 1 million Syrians still live under medieval sieges. As a humanitarian leader, Europe must demand that all sieges be lifted and that access not merely be a one-off to deflect international pressure, but sustained over time.
Accountability is also critical. Sweden, one of the countries in Europe hosting the highest number of refugees from Syria, will not be a safe haven for war criminals. In the absence of international justice, Swedish courts have started prosecuting war crimes committed in Syria with more cases in the pipeline. Other European countries should follow suite. The EU should support efforts to secure the release of detainees, including by demanding that international monitors have full, unimpeded access to all detention centres, including military prisons. Doing so would not only improve the conditions inside Assad's jails, it would also help unlock the political process in Geneva.
European policymakers have long said that Syrian women must have a voice at the peace process. Syrian women are ready to assume that role. But the valid plans women present cannot be put into action if Europe and the world fail to establish the conditions necessary to reach peace in Syria. Europe must empower Syria's women by meeting their legitimate demands to end the violence, break the sieges, release detainees, and ensure accountability. Now is the time for Europe to lead on Syria and bring about the conditions for peace.