DAMASCUS: Once the cradle of civilisation and a country known for its rich history and unmistaken beauty, the kindness and hospitality of its people, Syria continues to be blighted by violent conflict and terrorism. The brutal conflict, now in its fifth year, has taken a toll on the Syrian people. Almost half the country’s population has been forced to flee the violence, making the conflict the world’s single largest driver of displacement.

The statistics are staggering: 4.7 million refugees; 6.6 million internally displaced; 13 million in need of assistance; 250,000 people killed. This violent conflict has not spared any Syrian the pain of loss – a schism to the fabric of society leaving scars and deep wounds that will take years to heal.

It’s a proven fact that violent conflicts often have a disproportionate impact on women and girls. They are at a greater risk of sexual violence, exploitation, trafficking, and early and forced marriage. We have seen in Syria, and to a similar extent in Iraq, that as extremist groups, such as the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), have increased in influence, their territorial advances have been coupled with targeted, strategic attacks on women’s rights and freedoms in particular, including a pattern of sexual slavery, abduction and human trafficking and gross human rights violations.

Having painted this sobering picture, we also recognise that while women face heightened vulnerability in the context of crisis and bear the brunt of violent conflict, they are not only victims but also leaders in their own right. Since the beginning of the crisis, Syrian women have been inspiring examples of resilience and determination. They started organising at the community level to address the humanitarian needs, forming networks and coalitions in response.

But this early organising did not easily translate into a voice at the international level, or among the key parties in the conflict. Women’s groups were initially divided and without a common agenda.

The political process started with Geneva I in 2012. Contrary to the international commitments laid out in the UN Security Council resolutions 1325 and 2122, women were largely absent from the political process whether in terms of representation on official delegations or as civil society representatives. Therefore, Syrian women asked us for support to help them organise and rally the diverse women’s networks, coalitions and activists around a common agenda.

By Geneva II, in January 2014, Syrian women were still under-represented in official delegations. However, UN Women was determined to support them by amplifying their voices. Alongside the Government of the Netherlands, the organisation facilitated the first high-visibility conference in January 2014. Following a rich, vociferous discussion, the women participants presented an outcome statement to the Joint Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, which outlined their unified vision and concrete recommendations for the political process. This launched the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy (SWIPD), a group of diverse women civil society activists who are committed to working together to support efforts for a political solution and a greater role for women in the political process.

Following three years of committed activism by Syrian women, joint advocacy, and coalition and capacity-building, in February 2016, Special Envoy De Mistura formed a Women’s Advisory Board to engage in the political process, which includes 12 members, half of who are members of the SWIPD. With the technical and logistical support of UN Women, the Women’s Advisory Board continues to represent Syrian women as civil society actors and has been engaging in Geneva III talks with the Special Envoy to amplify the voices of the women’s movement, to discuss negotiating issues and raise key matters missing from the agenda. Women’s representation on official delegations has also increased, although at close to 20 per cent, it continues to fall short of the 30 per cent target.

Meanwhile, as part of UN Women’s continued efforts towards building the broadest possible women’s coalition for peace, the Syrian Women Peacemakers conference was organised recently, which brought together the most diverse and representative group so far in terms of allegiances, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, age and geographic distribution, with members of SWIPD and the Women Advisory Board to the Special Envoy. In May this year, over 130 Syrian women, including political and civil society activists, came together in Beirut and forged a statement of unity, despite significant political divides.

This latest intervention has started a new era of engagement for the Syrian women’s movement, as they work together towards a greater role and representation for women in the political process and forming a strong coalition for peace on the ground.

As part of the UN Women team that has been engaged in this endeavour for the past three years, I have closely observed the kind of strategies that work to build such synergy and consequently, bring favourable outcomes. Supporting women’s agency, unifying women’s voices and bringing them together around a common agenda has to be starting point. Leveraging on the women’s rights agenda as the minimum common denominator to transcend sectarian, ethnic and political divisions and later expanding the perimeters of consensus as the group builds trust are the next steps. With such diverse opinions and voices at play, it’s advisable to provide a neutral convening space to build capacity and forge a unified vision.

Engaging in strong advocacy with member states and forging a strong partnership with the political side of the UN house has been useful. We did this by working closely with the UN Department of Political Affairs and the Office of the Special Envoy as well as by advocating with member states of influence over the Syrian crisis for women’s inclusion in the talks. Lastly, having committed donors who are flexible and more interested in the end result than immediate visibility makes all the difference. In this regard, the Governments of the Netherlands and Norway have been exemplary donors.

The resilient Syrian women are a potent asset for peace; we stand with them in solidarity and behind them with support for the long haul.

(The writer is Programme Advisor and Head of the Arab State Section for UN Women)

(This article is part of UN Women’s ‘Step It Up for Gender Equality’ campaign)

(Women's Feature Service)