Women must be at the peace table for a chance of ending war in Syria

With devastating conflicts raging in so many countries, creating a more peaceful and stable world has to be top of everyone’s New Year resolutions. Yet the voices of half the population of these countries are ignored, as women are excluded from the peace table.

Last year saw more than 40 armed conflicts, the highest number of battle-related deaths since 1989 and the worst humanitarian and refugee crisis since the second world war.

Women bear the brunt of war today; accurate statistics are impossible to obtain but it is estimated that while at the beginning of the 20th century only 5% of fatalities in wartime were civilians, that figure steadily rose, reaching more than90% by the 1990s. Many of the civilians killed or injured in today’s conflicts are women and children; in Afghanistan, the UN has documented a steady increase in both the number of civilian casualties and the proportion of those civilians who were women and children.

These are compelling reasons to make women stakeholders in any peace talks. Yet the last few years have been replete with examples of how they were excluded. In earlier talks on Syria, Syrian women were ignored. From the picture of the Vienna peace process on Syria in October – where 18 men and one woman sat round the table – nothing seems to have changed.

Vienna peace process on Syria – 19 foreign ministers, only one of them a woman, met to discuss ways to end the conflict
Vienna peace process on Syria – 19 foreign ministers met to discuss ways to end the conflict. Photograph: US Department of State/EPA

The situation has been similar during Afghanistan peace talks. So frustrated were Afghan women’s rights activists over being excluded from the session on Afghanistan at the Nato conference at Newport in 2014 that one prominent activist staged a protest in the car park outside.

Women’s exclusion continues, despite research demonstrating that when women are included, the likelihood of achieving a peace agreement is significantly higher.

Last year was the 15th anniversary of UN security council resolution 1325, which recognised not only the disproportionate effect that war has on women, but the need for their presence at the peace table and involvement in post-conflict reconstruction. Fifty-five countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, have now adopted national strategies to implement this resolution, and a further 10 have pledged to do so.

To mark this 15th anniversary, in October the UN convened a high-level review at the security council in New York to assess its progress at local, national and global levels. An unprecedented 113 countries wanted to speak in the debate, making it the most popular in the history of the security council. Indeed, most recognised the importance of women’s participation in peace talks, despite their continued exclusion. Sadly while most countries talked about what they had done, few laid out a vision of the future. The UK made pledges, including support for women’s participation in all UK-hosted peace building events.

But will this political will be translated into political action? Women’s rights campaigners who cautiously welcomed this commitment are already pointing to the long list of unfilled promises on this agenda. Recent peace processes have failed to effectively engage and meaningfully involve women – between 1992 and 2011, just 4% of signatories to peace agreements were women.

The UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has announced that negotiations will start on Syria this month. De Mistura has reportedly said Syrian women will be included. But what form will this take? Will it be another case of a preceding civil society conference, with a woman allowed to speak for three minutes at the actual negotiations? Or will he have the courage to break the mould and ensure that women are at the main peace conference and can fully participate and contribute?

The flow of Syrian refugees into Europe has finally turned the world’s eyes to a conflict where terrible suffering has been ignored for too long. All the world has a stake in ending this war, and women must be at the table for there to be a realistic chance of achieving this.

Fiona Hodgson is Lady Hodgson of Abinger CBE and chair of the advisory board of Gender Action for Peace and Security

See original in The Guardian HERE.