Stories from Women in Syria

By Jo Allebone World YWCA Short-term Advocacy Intern, Jo attended the 23rd Session of the Human Rights Council  (HRC) in Geneva, Switzerland. (Original source of blog: http://jojoia.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/day-18-stories-from-women-in-syria/)

This morning we attended the last Women’s Rights Caucus for the Human Rights Council. The Caucus is co-organised by the World YWCA, World Women’s Summit Foundation (WWSF) and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). The meeting provided an opportunity for members to hear from women who are working in NGOs in Syria and Jordan on what is ‘really’ happening to women and girls in refugee settings in these countries.

Jo Allebone

Jo Allebone

This is an important issue for the World YWCA as it has member associations in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt – all of which are affected by and connected to the Syrian conflict. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, World YWCA General Secretary welcomed us to the meeting, she’s always so powerful when she speaks and brings everyone right back to the heart of why we’re here in Geneva.She reminded us that we need to make sure there’s a connection between what’s being talked about at the HRC and the realities of what women refugees are experiencing.

We know that the HRC will look at adopting the resolution on violence against women, and she challenged us to consider how today’s discussion can inform our broader engagement and advocacy at the HRC. She also noted that we need an intergenerational focus in our dialogue, from girls and young women as refugees, to women and mothers, and older women. The first guest speaker was Ms Fardous Albahra, from the Syrian Women’s League (SWL), who reminded us that what’s happening in Syria is not an armed conflict, it’s a revolution to reach democracy and justice.

The regimes have been focusing on different strategies to crack down on the revolution. Many Syrian women from a range of social classes have been raped and imprisoned, but there has been a particular focus on disadvantaged women. The aim of such tactics are to break the human spirit, disempower communities, and ultimately deter people from continuing their participation on the revolution.

She shared with us an insight into politics in Syria. Unsurprisingly, very few women are involved in Syrian politics. Fewer still are part of the women’s movement.

The majority of the women involved in Syrian politics don’t support the SWL’s call for women to have the right to pass their nationality on to their children. It was in fact the democratic secular men in parliament who supported it. The SWL hopes that the revolution will end soon, and that a secular and democratic government will encourage women’s participation in decision-making, politics and public life. They called for the international community to oppose human rights violations, and to support their long-term strategy and constitution for women to become a part of political life in Syria.

Next we heard from Ms Sabah Al Hallak, also a representative from the SWL who provided a brief overview of how the conflict in Syria began, and reminded us that women are disproportionately affected during times of conflict.

She said that women in Syria are calling for peace, and the SWL is doing whatever it can to seek women’s involvement in the political process, and demand women’s rights in the next government’s agenda. She noted that the media has played a big role in enforcing negative framing of women, and in exaggerating claims about violations towards women.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to chat to her about this (she was whisked off to her next speaking engagement), but I presume that the government and media are closely aligned and work together to perpetuate a sense of fear among Syrian people.

Ms Dana Abu Sham, from the Arab Women Organisation of Jordan (AWOJ) reminded us that domestic violence is seen as a part of some Syrian cultures, particularly rural areas, and that this was occurring prior to the revolution.

She spoke of the AWOJ’s work outside of refugee camps, and the current challenges around data collection, and so was reluctant to make concrete statements about which issues were most impacting on women.

She shared a very different perspective on the way that men, particularly Arab men view women from Syria, and women from Jordan.

“Syrian women have a reputation of being fair-skinned, very beautiful, knowing how to please men (both physically and emotionally), and being sweet-talkers.

Jordanian women on the other hand are not as fair-skinned, they are more aggressive and they will stand up to a man”, she said.

It’s not uncommon for wealthy Arab men to fly into Syria or Jordan for one week, pay a small dowry to the girl’s impoverished family, marry her, and after a week of pleasure leave her forever – with nothing.

When child brides get married and do not register their marriages in host communities, then it is considered illegal in that country. Moreover if she were to have a baby, then automatically that child is considered illegitimate. The ramifications on her rights and the rights of the child are overwhelming. So what can women’s organisations in Geneva do? We were urged to continue our work on women’s rights especially in refugee settings, protecting women from all forms of violence, particularly in conflict situations, and to advocate for women to be involved in peace negotiations.

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