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If governments want to achieve peace in Syria, they need to stop excluding women from their negotiations

I was appointed to the Women’s Advisory Board but I was almost alone among the group for having an overtly political background. Had the group been deliberately de-politicised? 

Mouna Ghanem
Friday 22 February 2019 16:43
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It stands to reason that you cannot reach a lasting solution to a country’s problems if you start by excluding half the population from that process. And the weight of evidence shows this is true.

When researchers studied 82 peace agreements in 42 armed conflicts between 1989 and 2011, they found processes that included women as negotiators, mediators and signatories were more likely to lead to peace, and that that peace was more likely to last.

These were the arguments I took with me when I joined with other Syrian women democrats at the peace talks in Geneva. We had not been invited to the talks, we were not official participants. Like nearly all Syrian women, we were just bystanders at an event intended to map out our destiny. Instead of taking our place at the negotiating table, we had to make do with the lobby.

It was there that activists made the case to the then UN Special Envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. Many diplomats and politicians have warm words to say about women’s participation in peace talks. Of course, they see the arguments, of course they are with us 100 per cent in principle. In comparison, Brahimi’s attitude was cold, to the point. When he was told that women needed to be part of the Syrian peace process, he shot back, why are you telling me? Why don’t you tell your own people?

The doors to the peace talks had been thrown open to all sorts of participants – radicals, armed groups – while they had been closed to us and many more democratic movements. We were deflated by Brahimi’s response, as we were to be by the outcome of the Geneva talks. The war raged on. But we saw an opportunity with the appointment of Brahimi’s successor.

The Swedish diplomat Staffan de Mistura spoke warmly of the importance of women’s participation, and he was prepared to give women a platform in the process – or at least the appearance of it. Alongside 11 others, I was appointed to the Women’s Advisory Board. Our role was, in essence, to make up for the lack of women in the regime and opposition negotiating teams, and more importantly, to put the issues of importance to Syrian women on the agenda.

I felt at the time it was an important step, but almost immediately my concerns grew. I was almost alone among the group for having an overtly political background. Had the group been deliberately de-politicised? I had been given a pass due to a life spent fighting for women’s rights but I paid a high price for that privilege, as did the board itself, effectively neutering it as a serious political voice.

More serious fractures became apparent. The board was meant to provide a missing gender perspective for the peace process. Yet among its membership were those who rejected entirely the principles of universal human rights and international conventions on women’s rights and equality. How were we to come to any kind of agreement between ourselves, let alone the warring parties?

Attempts to address the inconsistencies and problems only created more – the decision to rotate membership of the board only fostered a sense of competition and rivalry, further fragmenting the already embattled women’s movement. All the time, Western governments gave generously to fund the board’s activities, perhaps pleased they could cross women’s participation off the to-do list, with nothing to show for it in the end.

Eventually I was asked to resign from the board after meeting with diplomats in my political capacity. For having the temerity to involve myself in the peace process, they expected me to leave the peace process.

I might not have liked Lakhdar Brahimi’s response back in Geneva, but even at the time I could not have argued with it. To participate meaningfully in a political process, you need to be able to represent a constituency. The women’s advisory board was never given the chance to work with their own constituency – we could not unify women at grassroots level so that they could become a critical mass capable of influencing the political process.

By failing to politically empower its members, the women’s advisory board was hamstrung from the start, providing women’s participation that was little more than cosmetic. With the announcement of a similar board for the process in Yemen, I would advise all involved not to make the same mistakes again - and particularly not to mistake being at the talks for being at the table.

Mouna Ghanem is a former member of the Women's Advisory Board to the UN Special Envoy to Syria

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