Since March 2011, Syria has been engulfed in civil war. What started out as peaceful protests by pro-democracy Syrians escalated rapidly into a bloody war between the Assad regime and opposition forces. Over 100,000 Syrians have died, and the death toll is rising.
More than 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced since the beginning of the conflict; at least 2 million have become refugees, fleeing to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Three-quarters of Syrian refugees are women and children who have streamed by the thousands across borders to escape violence.
Within Syria, the brutal violence has cut millions of people off from access to food, water, fuel, sanitation, health care and other vital needs. Some 60% of public hospitals are estimated to have either limited or no capacity to provide care. Entire communities are under siege, blocked from receiving life-saving humanitarian aid. In some places, people have resorted to eating leaves and grass out of desperation.
The civil war has caused millions of Syrians to flee to neighboring countries such as Jordan which currently provides asylum to over 500,000 refugees. Often, refugees have had to flee with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
Half of the two million Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries are children who lack an adequate supply of basic necessities essential for survival. As refugee families grow more destitute, women and girls face threats of child marriage and forced prostitution. Child marriage is seen as a way to ensure that daughters are cared for and fed, and to generate scarce income for the family through a bride-price. But girls sold into marriage are extremely vulnerable to abuse, lose opportunities for education and risk serious health hazards of early pregnancy.
Prospects for Peace
Despite the scale of this suffering, governments have failed to reach an urgently-needed political resolution to this conflict.
Superimposed onto Syria’s civil war is a regional, even global, battle for influence: Iran, Russia and China are arming Assad and blocking efforts to sanction Syria through the UN Security Council. The United States, European Union, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel oppose Assad’s government. Saudi Arabia and Iran are each using Syria to further their own ambitions to dominate the region. The US is allied with Saudi Arabia but is wary that a rebel victory may not propel its interests. The rebels are a conglomeration, including the al-Nusra Front, linked to al-Qaeda, and the Free Syrian Army, which is a catch-all term for numerous other groups and individual foreign fighters.
Amid this shifting political landscape, peace negotiations have stalled. Named after a meeting held in June 2012, the process known as the Geneva II peace conference has been postponed repeatedly.
For any peace talks to yield real results, women must be included at the table. Since this conflict began, Syrian women and girls have been targeted with violence, including sexual assault, as a deliberate tactic of warfare. Women and children make up the majority of refugees spilling over borders into neighboring countries. Their priorities must be a central concern of any future peace talks. Similarly, the voices of peaceful, democratic Syrian civil society groups must be heard in the Geneva process.