Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis: War, Gender,and the Path to Peace

On Jan. 22 delegates from 30 countries will meet, hoping to find a political solution to end the conflict in Syria that has left more than 120,000 people dead.

But women’s rights advocates in the region are hesitant to expect a truce.

“A lot of the people I’ve met with have felt grave mistrust,” says Kristine Anderson, of the Syria Research and Evaluation Organization based on the Turkey/Syria border. “They feel disconnected with the peace process going on in Geneva II and they don’t believe it will bring a tangible outcome in terms of helping with violence.”

Last week a group of Syrian women demanded that the U.N. appoint a gender adviser to push for constitutionally guaranteed equality between women and men. They argued if there is to be lasting peace, their voices cannot be silenced.

Women under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule enjoyed freedoms and relative rights. But thanks to the civil war, those rights recently have been dealt a setback in opposition-held areas of the country where al-Qaida militants have taken over.

Human Rights Watch said in a report last week that some extremist Islamist groups in northern Syria are imposing strict and discriminatory rules on women and girls, including requiring them to wear headscarves and full-length robes. The organization says these new rules have no basis in Syrian law and limit women’s ability to carry out essential daily activities, move freely in public or to attend school.

Still, Anderson, who primarily works with Syrian refugees in Turkey, said that in some ways the civil war has empowered women, pushing them into roles as breadwinners.

“The destabilization of gender roles both inside and outside of Syria as seen in Syrian refugees will continue for generations. Families are being completely changed,” she says. “Husbands, brothers, fathers have been fighting, a lot have been killed in the revolution, and women have found economic roles caring for their family, and this is absolutely something that will have long term effects.”

While Anderson argues there is disconnect between the delegates going to Geneva II and the people working on the ground in civil society, she’s hopeful that the peace talks will bring about easier access to humanitarian aid.

Kefah ali Deeb, a prominent Syrian activist, told the Associated Press that “no less than 80 percent” of all 9.3 million Syrians who need aid are women children.

“We cannot remain silent regarding events unfolding in Syria such as daily death, massive destruction, starvation of people and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrian families, in Syria and abroad, as well as the spread of terror, of violence, ongoing detentions, acts of kidnapping, destruction of infrastructures and the spread of diseases, particularly among children,” ali Deeb told reporters in Geneva.

Whether it’s in Switzerland or Syria, women are finding their voice.

“Civil society is very robust and women are playing a very active role in that,” Anderson says. “There are a lot of women who are hoping to bring about peace by engaging with their communities…. Women are hoping to do more with that than the Geneva II conference.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.