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Need-to-Know: The Syria Peace Talks

Our Feminist Foreign Policy Demands

Call for the US and other members of the International Syria Support Group to:

  • Include Syrian women peace advocates as a third, independent negotiating bloc, separate from the government and opposition
  • Conduct substantive consultation with grassroots organizations as vital connectors to war-torn communities

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New negotiations to end the war in Syria, after being delayed yet again, are slated to begin this Friday.

Invitations go out today, but the names of the recipients are shrouded in secrecy. Tensions have been running high over who deserves a seat at the negotiating table, and US Secretary of State John Kerry is struggling even to get opposing groups to sit down in the same room.

Peace in Syria cannot wait. Every day, the refugee humanitarian crisis gets worse. Inside Syria, there are horrifying reports of women, children and families starving to death in the besieged town of Madaya.

All the while, one group of stakeholders with vital, constructive solutions has been actively seeking to join the peace negotiations, but has thus far been shut out: women peace advocates. Their meaningful participation is the key to a successful peace process.

To understand why, here are two questions to consider.

1. How will a peace agreement move from paper to practice?

On-the-ground, grassroots activists, including the women peace advocates MADRE supports, deliver lifesaving aid to war-torn communities. They foster cooperation by bridging sectarian divides, even negotiating small-scale ceasefires and prisoner exchanges.

Here’s an example of women’s organizing. MADRE helps lead a series called Strategies for Change, uniting grassroots women advocates from Syria and Iraq to share their experiences of war. Each participant brings what she’s learned from her community’s experience, so the shared, actionable solutions they create together are deeply informed by grassroots priorities.

Together, these women have put forth ready-made recommendations to end the war and build lasting peace. What’s more, their activist networks are an invaluable conduit between the peace negotiating table and the communities most devastated by war.

To ensure Syria’s chances for a peace that lasts, Syrians will need to successfully bring the agreement home. This effort will require an effective mechanism to connect with communities, meet their urgent needs and build peace over the long haul. Grassroots women are that mechanism. They can ensure that an agreement fosters genuine peace, rather than merely dividing up the spoils among warring parties.

2. Are women peace advocates meaningfully represented?

It’s not a good sign that Syrian women activists have not been guaranteed a real spot at the negotiating table to advance substantive issues that their communities face.

Instead, these women, including MADRE’s partners, have been told by the conveners to be satisfied with serving as advisors to Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy on the Syrian conflict. Or they’ve heard that the government and opposition teams will be encouraged to include women representatives. Or they’ve been warned by people on De Mistura’s team to “keep their emotions out of the room” if they’re allowed in. Despite all these obstacles and insults, 25 women, including some of MADRE’s Syrian partners, will be in Geneva this week to demand real inclusion.

It’s not enough to leave women at the sidelines or to simply check off a box that a woman representing an armed group was in the room. True peace will require something much more: for women peace advocates to serve as an independent third party to the negotiations, separate from the government or opposition. And since that’s not happening, the answer to our question above is simply: no.

The real-life consequences of this ‘no’ are disastrous. We know from past peace processes that when women aren’t truly represented in peace talks, half of them fail within five years, often leading to more wars.

It’s been over 15 years since the United Nations adopted Security Council Resolution 1325, which mandates a role for women in peace negotiations. Despite this commitment, only 4% of signatories to peace agreements are women.

But we can avoid this disastrous result and create something better, if we recognize that peace relies on so much more than just ending the fighting. A successful peace agreement would foster community-based recovery so that people can heal and rebuild. Time and time again, it’s women who play a leading role in this type of grassroots peacebuilding – like MADRE’s on-the-ground partners. When you sideline women’s voices, you risk a peace settlement that overlooks the realities, priorities and needs of the very communities it needs to protect.