* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
FRIDAY FILE - AWID interviewed Rajaa Altalli, co-founder and Public Relations Director from the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria(CCSDS) about the impacts of Syria’s humanitarian crisis on women, their priority shift from revolution to survival, and how, amongst all the bloodshed, some Syrian women are organizing for their role in a transitional process.
By Rochelle Jones
A convoluted war
Syria is in the midst of a violent war. The uprisings started in March 2011 as part of the 'Arab Spring' pro-democracy movement, but conflict has now escalated into a civil war where to date almost 100,000 people have died – 6000 of them children. President Bashar al-Assad – who, in 2000, followed on from his father’s 29-year rule in Syria - has ignored international condemnation of the conflict and remained determined from day one. In an interview with the UK Sunday Times in November 2011 – which he published on his own Presidential website - he warned that Syria "will not bow down". Living up to those words thus far, the Assad regime has continued its violent campaign against those who seek an end to his power – and most of the country is under siege.
The parameters of the civil war are convoluted. Armed government opposition is made up of the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) and the al-Nusra Front. Any resemblance to the original pro-democracy protestors from 2011 is now shrouded by the conflict’s escalated scale. The FSA is a mesh of civilian militia and Assad army defectors spread out all over the country. The al-Nusra Front, on the other end of the spectrum, has recently been blacklisted by the United Nationsas an alias of al-Qaeda. The government, to strengthen their grip on power, has enlisted the assistance of Hezbollah from Lebanon – and it is rumored - Iran. In addition, Russia has said it is “committed to fulfilling a 2010 contract with Assad's government for S-300 long-range surface-to-air missiles as a deterrent against foreign military intervention”. A move, it is argued, that is aimed at the UK and France, who are considering arming the FSA. Sectarian differences in Syria have also been pitched as a problem in references to the conflict, sparking further fire out of smoke.
Syrian women: From revolution to survival
Like other ‘Arab Spring’ events in the region, women played a central role in the 2011 uprisings in Syria against Assad. Rajaa Altalli from the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria(CCSDS) has been researching the part played by women in the Syrian revolution, and running workshops focused on boosting their social and political roles in Syria. Through her work, she has discovered that women’s experiences of the civil war and hopes for the future vary. Some are focused on survival, some – especially the mothers of victims inside Syria - are mobilizing for coexistence and reconciliation, and some are mobilizing for a post-Assad Syria and the meaningful participation of women:
“Syrian women played an important role in the uprising against the Assad regime. [They] organized sit-ins, led demonstrations, chanted in the streets, helped with medical aid for the injured in the demonstrations, [and] they helped with humanitarian aid for the displaced. In addition to that, women played a big role in preventing security forces from arresting many men. One example is when more than 500 women of Banias organized a strike and [blocked] the highway. They refused to go back to their houses until the Syrian regime released their husbands, sons and brothers from detention.”
Now the conflict has intensified and changed, women’s roles too, have altered - both for those who remain inside Syria and those who have left. Altalli explains that the role of women “shifted a lot after the uprising transferred to civil war and at this point one can see women are focusing more on humanitarian aid, psycho- social support for women and children, media, and also medical help… The majority of women leaders [are] now leaders on humanitarian aid.”
With the conflict being waged on so many different fronts, Altalli admits, “Syrian women are suffering the most. Many women had to flee their houses and their towns more than once during the last two years… Some of the key women protest leaders had to leave the country after they were arrested or threatened by the regime many times. During the violent crisis, domestic violence increased and also there are some unconfirmed reports of sexual violence against women during the attacks [and] some documented cases of rape against women in the security branches.” Despite these tough circumstances, however, Altalli asserts that women are strong and can adapt: “There are many examples where displaced women stopped complaining and started taking care of other displaced people and children. Many of the schools which [are] hosting an enormous number of displaced people inside Syria are taken care of by Syrian women.”
While women have had to adapt to new, violent circumstances by shifting their priorities from revolution to survival, this has not dampened some women’s resolve for an end to the Assad regime. Despite the bloodshed, and perhaps because of it, many women are readying themselves for a transition to a new Syria. Altalli says that “even though Syrian women are in a bad situation concerning their representation within political bodies such as the Syrian coalition and local councils, women are mobilizing for better representation on many different levels. Syrian women are realizing the importance of getting ready for the transitional process. One can notice how much women are willing to learn more and educate themselves to be more prepared on different levels so they can be qualified for participating in the transitional process.” According to Altalli, for example, the CCSDS, which is based in Qamishli – a town on the Syria/Turkey border – has facilitated four workshops for more than 70 Syrian women, “this training focused on different areas: advocacy, negotiation, public speaking and peace-building. CCSDS’ program "Women for the future of Syria" aims to increase the meaningful participation of Syrian women in the transitional process.” The CCSDS also supported the ‘I am SHE’ campaign on International Women’s Day 2013 which raised awareness of Syrian women as important and equal participants in society and politics. The CCSDS report on the campaign notes “The violence engulfing Syria right now has had a great impact on women and children… The situation regarding women’s marginalization and exclusion from representation in the various opposition bodies, local councils, boards and political coalitions are consistent features of the Syrian political scene and have been a running theme throughout Syrian political culture over the past 50 years. This cycle of marginalization and exclusion must be broken if Syria is to have a more educated and robust civil society and pluralistic political culture.”
Ongoing humanitarian crisis
Right now, the reality for many women is simply to survive. Over 1.6 million Syrians have registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) – three quarters being women and children and most fleeing Syria this year. This number is probably much more, given that many people are not registered. Altalli says that, “since women are more concerned with how they can survive, it is much harder to mobilize from outside of Syria… Yet, some women are playing an important role in leading small projects for women and conducting psycho-social support activities for children…” MADRE, who are working with women inside the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, says that women are in need of health supplies, lights for safety, reproductive healthcare and counselling and legal services. They reported in May this year that “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 the bride-price. But girls sold into marriage are extremely vulnerable to abuse, lose opportunities for education and risk serious health hazards of early pregnancy.”
The need for solidariity and support
Altalli says, “I believe in Syrian women, they are strong despite all the pressure and oppression they face from their families, society, the regime and the extremists. Yet, Syrian women [are] in need of support [from] international women's rights activists through standing by them, listening to their voices and lobbying with them. Syrian women need the expertise that other women in the world [have acquired] through their work and their activism. Building more contacts [between] Syrian women leaders and international organizations will help a lot in empowering Syrian women”.
Syrian women’s voices now need more amplification than ever. The U.S. Government last week authorized direct U.S. military support to the rebels based on evidence that the Assad Government used chemical weapons. What this means is that in the upcoming weeks the CIA will deliver “light arms and ammunition” to rebels through Turkey and/or Jordan, with requests for antitank and antiaircraft weaponry still under discussion. The consequence of this military support is speculative at best but could mean further escalation of a war that has already claimed so many lives. MADRE strongly opposes military intervention and says that “funneling more arms to the opposition would fuel their brutal battle tactics, intensify the war, and further diminish chances of a democratic outcome for Syria. MADRE suggests instead “the Obama Administration should be offering political and diplomatic support to people who share a vision rooted in human rights. This will mean creating space for Syrians to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict, prioritizing women’s participation.”
Read the open letter to the UN Security Council from the NGO Working Group on Women Peace and Security, of which the Women's Refugee Commission is a member, urging UN Member States to end the violence in Syria, to allow humanitarian agencies access to all those in need of assistance, to provide assistance to Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and to ensure that the women and men of Syria are equally involved in rebuilding their country.