By Kerri Kennedy and Patricia Sellick

As we pause to mark Women’s History Month, we celebrate the progress made by women in politics, policy, and economic development. But we also note the absence of women in leadership roles in formal peace-building processes. In Syria, women have been actively leading peace efforts in their communities throughout the protracted violent conflict, but their participation was limited at the talks aimed at bringing an end to today’s most devastating crisis.

The ongoing tragedy in Syria has plunged millions of women into refugee status—together with their children, who constitute more than half of all refugees. Acutely aware of the devastating impacts of the war, women in Syria are demanding full participation in peace-building processes—demands which align with UN resolutions that promote women’s participation in conflict resolution and recovery.

Every day, women around the world are leading social movements, promoting nonviolent actions and resolving conflicts house by house, community by community, country by country. Indeed, there is an expanding recognition globally of the crucial role of women in all aspects of peace making and peace-building. However, women’s participation in formal peace processes still remains low—likely because such approaches primarily engage armed actors rather than integrating a plurality of representatives from affected communities, including groups that have remained committed to nonviolence. 

Ensuring inclusion of women in the peace talks over Syriaand making their roles visible and highlighting their contributionswould not only be a symbolic victory. It would also help strengthen the peace process on the ground in Syria, where many women are united in the belief that this war must end, and that they could play a role in building the conditions for peace. Be they Sunni or Shia Muslim, Christian, Assyrian, Kurd, or Syriac, women tell us and our civil society partners on the ground they want a future of peace and shared security.

Why should we care if women are included in formal peace processes? First, conflict affects women and men differently, and their perspectives can help ensure that important components to a durable peace are not missed. Second, evidence shows us that women’s participation in peace processes leads to more sustainable results. To create a sustainable peace, women (and other members of civil society groups) need to help set the agenda and contribute to the negotiations early on. All perspectives need to be heard and engaged in order for peace processes to yield inclusive and durable results.

In 2008, a study of 33 peace processes by the UN documented that only 11 of 280 participants were women, eight years after the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security that addressed the need for women to play central roles in peace-building processes.

Representation reflective of all impacted populations, including women as representative of at least 50 percent of the population in most conflicts, can lead parties to consider important issues not otherwise on the table. Their role can help to move forward a stalled process, give voice to humanitarian rather than military incentives for a political settlement, increase public support for a negotiated settlement, and strengthen the accountability of belligerent parties to their own societies and to each other.

In Syria, women are demanding full participation in formal peace-building processes in accordance with the UN Resolutions 1325 and 2122 which promote women’s participation in conflict resolution and recovery. The war has been a setback to Syrian women’s participation in public life. Women in pre-war Syria were very much in the public sphere, and had achieved high levels of education. As power has become focused in the hands of armed people, women’s voices have been increasingly excluded.

In late January, the Geneva II Conference on Syria convened the Assad government, opposition, the UN, and other international representatives to attempt to seek a resolution to Syria’s protracted and devastating conflict. Syria’s ongoing civil war has caused upwards of 100,000 deaths since March 2011. Almost 2.5 million have fled to neighboring countries and a further 6.5 million have been internally displaced.

Ten days before Geneva II, a group of female civil society leaders gathered to advocate for an inclusive Syrian peace process engaging women and civil society. The women released a joint statement detailing their recommendations for ending the fighting, promoting the peace process, and improving the humanitarian situation. They demanded that all parties to the conflict guarantee the active participation of women in all negotiating teams and committees and in the overall political process.

The Geneva II Conference on Syria did include a minority of women. Two of nine government negotiators were women, and the opposition delegation included three women among their ten negotiatorsbut not from civil societies so crucial to building a lasting peace. Female delegates and technical advisors led discussions around important topics such as the need for unfettered humanitarian access. This was a good startbut in order to create sustainable outcomes, not only the armed actors need to be represented at the next round of negotiations, but also those who have committed to nonviolence, and whose role will be essential elements to war’s end. Female Syrian leaders are calling for a 30 percent participation in negotiating process, the integration of all civil society into the process, and for constitutional reform that provides equality for all Syrians.

We recognize the positive step taken by the Syrian delegations to ensure that women were included in Geneva II and hope all parties heed the call for the active participation of civil society in the peace-building process. The example set by these civil society representatives is critical if a way forward is to be found that does not rely on a military response. During this Women’s History Month, we commend the brave work on Syrian women, peace activists, and civil society as they aim to create a more diverse conversation and build a peaceful political solution that includes all Syrians.