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Syrian Women: The Missing Civil Link to Geneva II Peace Talks

January 23, 2014
Peace Summit 2014

From left to right: Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of WILPF; Susan Alloush; Gracia Namour (Elham’s interpreter); Elham Ahmad, and Rim Turkmani.

“The power of women is truly enormous, but we need to cooperate more. Our world needs the voices of women,” urged Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Prize winner from Northern Ireland, to an audience of women’s peace activists at the Maison de la Paix in Geneva.

On January 21st 2014, women from across the globe gathered at the Geneva Graduate Institute to discuss women’s role as peacemakers both in Syria and beyond. Prompted by the exclusion of Syrian women from the Geneva II peace talks, this Peace Summit addressed the seemingly universal barriers that women encounter as peacemakers and how they can overcome them.  One of the themes of the day, which appeared in many of the women’s testimonies and stories, was the need for collaboration of women across political and ethnic boundaries, the need for a united coalition of women for peace.

Rim Turkmani, the founder of Madani, an NGO that supports the role of Syrian civil society in the peacebuilding of Syria, put it succinctly when she reminded the audience that, unfortunately, “Not all women are a voice for peace,” instead, she stressed that “Women are a power for peace” especially “women working from a civil society perspective.”

Intervention by the International Community

A picture of Shirin Ebadi seated.

Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from Iran, gave the peace summit’s keynote address.

Among the women present there was a general consensus that while Syria may need help, foreign States needed to stop funding and militarizing the warring factions in Syria.  Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and human rights activist from Iran, gave a keynote address during the middle of the conference. During her speech Ebadi apologized for the interference of Iran and argued, “Syria belongs to the Syrians. Iran should leave Syria.” Ebadi also addressed the men in Syria and urged, “So for once, listen to your sister, put down your guns. Dry your tears.”

However, it was strongly suggested in the peace summit that the international community should provide support for mediation and monitoring of local peace processes. Rim Turkmani told the audience that in Syria, “we’ve seen so many local peace deals fall apart because there was no one to monitor.”

Finding a Way Forward

Excluded from the formal peace negotiations, the Syrian women civil society present at the peace summit continue to struggle to find an alternate path to participate in the international peace processes of their country.

It became clear that although the UN could block them from Geneva II, the women would return to continue brokering and maintaining the peace at the local, community level in Syria. Caroline Ayoub, a Syrian activist who fled the country after imprisonment and later co-founded Souriali radio station, conveyed to the room that Syrian women can be a powerful force on the local level. She said, “The women played a very important role in the start of the resistant movement. The girls, women were able to cross the checkpoints, they were able to bring milk to families, and go to besieged places. They were able to transport people for treatment, they were an organised group.”

Even Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s Special Envoy to Syria, has indicated that the Syrian women civil society are a more organised force than the current opposition party. It is truly a lost opportunity then, that one of the most organised and powerful links to the local communities will not be present at the formal peace talks.

Ann Patterson, an activist from Northern Ireland, confided to WILPF after the peace summit, women in difficult situations rise to the challenges life presents. “It is ordinary women, who are doing extraordinary things,” she said with a bit of awe.

The peace summit demonstrated to all present that the Syrian women and civil society are currently doing, and will continue to do, extraordinary things for peace to arrive in Syria.

A picture of women peace activists sitting in a circle and talking.

Mairead Maguire, a Nobel Leareute from Northern Ireland speaking to the audience. On her left, Ann Patterson also from Northern Ireland, and on her right, Chaba Seini from Western Sahara.

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