On January 22, 2014, UN-backed peace talks began in Geneva, Switzerland between the government of Syria and the Western-backed opposition in hopes of bringing an end to the three-year civil war. The two sides agreed to the talks pushed for by Russia, which supports the regime, and the United States, which supports the opposition. The two world powers realized that the only chance for ending the war was through a political solution.
It was in 2012 that the United States and Russia, along with other major powers, helped create the Geneva Communique, which outlines agreed upon objectives and tactics to a peaceful political transition. The six-point plan focuses on four specific goals: the desired conditions for future life in Syria; clear steps on the transition; implementing safety, stability and calm; and rapidly achieving a credible political agreement.
The people sitting at the negotiating table include representatives from the UN, the Arab League, the Syrian government, and a delegation from the Syrian Opposition Coalition. At one point, Iran was invited to attend, but was quickly disinvited before the talks began. In all, delegations from 30 countries are attending the talks dubbed Geneva II.
The common characteristic of all delegations is the absence of women.
The war has killed more than 130,000 people and displaced millions more. The majority of these are women and children. When the protests started in March 2011, women marched alongside men against the Assad regime. As the war began and the conflict progressed, they have suffered the brunt of the violence, exasperated by the rise of those wishing for a more conservative interpretation of Islam.
Shortly before the peace talks began, a coalition of Syrian women’s groups met in Geneva to draft the demands Syrian women feel must be met in any agreement reached. The list included the request that women make up at least 30 percent of all negotiating teams in Geneva. Four women were elected from the group to meet with lead UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.
Even before Geneva II, Syrian women have been working towards a peaceful solution, with a focus on the reality of women’s lives as the country moves forward. As early as 2011, these groups were working on principles of a new constitution. In October 2012, forty Syrian women gathered in Cairo to create priorities and a framework for a peaceful solution. In January of this year, more than 60 women from The Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace met in Damascus to develop a charter for peace to present at the Geneva II convention.
In spite of the Geneva Communique’s insistence on inclusivity for the transition, and the specific requirement that “women must be fully represented in all aspects of the transition,” women have been denied a place at the negotiating table. Syrian women have been present in Geneva since before talks began, but thus far diplomats have been unwilling to include them — in direct violation of the Communique. Initial reports indicate talks are going slowly. Indeed, parties on both sides have come to the table seemingly intractable on certain points and have said from the outset they do not promise to adhere to any points of agreement that may result.
However, if none of the delegations include representatives from 50 percent of the population, how much real progress can be achieved?
Syrian women remain at the talks, even if they are outside the closed doors. They are committed to the future of their country and continue to fight to have their voices heard. When asked what happens if the Geneva II talks fail, one of the four representatives that met with the U.N. mediator said women’s groups would push for Geneva 3, 4, or 5.
“We are lawyers and engineers and professors, we are housewives and nurses and other medical professionals, we are 50 percent of society,” said Rafif Jouejati. “If Geneva 2 doesn’t work, we will push the men who are making war to make peace.”
Photo: Istanbul, Turkey - December 2, 2011 : Syrians living in Istanbul and Civil Society Organizations protest the regime of Bashar Essad in front of Syrian Consulate building on December 2, 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo via Thinkstock