The rebel-held city of Aleppo fell to pro-government troops last week with scores of civilians impacted by the conflict. Syria’s women have endured and overcome intense adversity throughout the Syrian Civil War since it began 5 years ago.
The women of Syria have experienced the armed conflict in different ways than their male counterparts, which is typically the case for women during wartime.
This distinct lived experience gives women a unique perspective that makes their inclusion in the peacemaking process fundamental towards ending the current war.
Sexual violence is commonplace during times of conflict because the lawlessness endorses a culture of impunity regarding the human rights of noncombatants.
In last week’s Aleppo offensive, a reported “20 women committed suicide in order not to be raped” by members of Assadist forces, who have been capturing civilians and taking them to internment camps.
Since 2001, “soldiers and pro-government armed militias have sexually abused women and girls as young as 12 during home raids and military sweeps of residential areas,” as well as assaulted women who were held in detention facilities, according to Human Rights Watch.
Due to the stigma of rape usually found in heavily patriarchal cultures like that of Syria, many victims wound up abandoned by their husbands, rejected by their communities, and even possibly subjected to “honor-killings” – leading many more too afraid to report the abuse. This fear, as well as limited access to resources, makes it difficult for survivors of rape to receive proper psychological and medical treatment.
Women living in areas dominated by groups such as ISIS and Al-Nusra have dealt with severe repression since they’ve taken control.
Now, in locations in which pro-Assad and alleged ‘anti-Isis’ forces are in power, women are suffering once again.
These women are forced to shroud their faces and are restricted from leaving their homes without a male escort – making it impossible for them to receive an education, acquire aid supplies, or participate in social activities.
According to The Independent, UN investigators recently reported a rise of extremist groups abducting women.
Combatants have been kidnapping their opponents’ female relatives as a means to blackmail them into surrendering.
Instances of child marriage have also increased during the conflict.
Many Syrian families resort to selling their teenage daughters into marriage in order to cope with the economic devastation of the war. In one ISIS-controlled city, two in ten girls are victims of this practice.
Multitudes of women have taken on the role as the sole breadwinner of their families – an estimated 250,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war, the vast majority men.
These widows are forced to care for their families alone in combat zones, struggling to provide food and other necessities to their children, who are facing mounting trauma and distress.
During the recent Aleppo Offensive, these single mothers had to protect their children on their own from the bombardment, approaching government troops, and from possibly getting trapped under rubble in besieged areas.
Those who were lucky to flee on foot have to deal with the aftermath of evacuation.
Women who fled Syria and have found refuge in surrounding countries have a particular set of issues, like risking sexual abuse by smugglers, living in overcrowded homes or makeshift shelters, hardship in securing jobs, limited access to basic resources, all while under the threat of violence and exploitation.
Despite all these human rights violations, Syrian women are finding means to resist.
The women of Syria are organizing protests, working in field hospitals, smuggling in and distributing humanitarian aid, establishing temporary schools and safe spaces for victims of violence, documenting human rights violations, and even brokering local-level ceasefires between regime and opposition forces.
Women are essentially mending the fabric of Syrian society and building the foundations for the country’s future.
Syrian women are already busy planning local and municipal elections, instead of waiting for a democratic transition at the national-level.
Women have been central to peace negotiations on the ground in their communities, but in the beginning, were largely absent from the international forums deliberating the future of Syria.
Back in 2015, when opposition groups discussed the peace process in Riyadh, only ten out of 108 participants were women.
Recently there’s been a shift. The UN formed its first-ever Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, a group of 12 Syrian women from diverse backgrounds, to advise the U.N. special envoy overseeing the peace talks and to ensure issues that previously went unaddressed are now analyzed properly.
The participation of women in the political decision making process is key in achieving a sustainable democratic peace in Syria.
“Syrian women continue to bear the brunt of the humanitarian crisis, mass displacement and terrorism,” said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. “Together, we must ensure that Syrian women do not have just a ‘presence’ in the political process, but that they have impact.”