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The role Syrian women can play in resolving the Syrian crisis - Statement by Deputy UN High Commissioner Flavia Pansieri

19 December 2013

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank the organizers for convening this important event in anticipation of the talks on the Syrian crisis.

Since the outbreak of protests in Syria, women there have been at the forefront of demanding democratic reforms and the protection of the human rights of all people. Throughout the conflict, women have paid a high price and been the victims of gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law that often amount to international crimes.

Women represent a significant proportion of the civilian casualties, with their right to life and physical integrity being violated. In addition, they have been subjected to forced displacement, harassment, and arbitrary arrest and detention - often to force male relatives to turn themselves in. The International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, supported by my Office, has concluded that the threat and the use of sexual violence have been key factors in the conflict, and that women and girls in refugee camps remain vulnerable to sexual exploitation, forced marriage and trafficking. The recent abduction of Razan Zaitouneh, a renowned human rights defender, and the apparent abduction of 12 nuns from Maaloula, are just two examples of the fate many women suffer in Syria today. All parties to the conflict need to refrain from targeting women and to immediately release all those who are deprived of their liberty in violation of international law.

Yet, it would be a huge mistake to view Syrian women simply as victims. Although exhausted by war, women in Syria are strengthened by their own history and the role they have played in building their society. Despite limited political and economic space in pre-conflict Syria, women were amongst the first in the region to practice their right to vote – exercising this right since 1949 – and have been engaged in the public sphere as doctors, jurists, engineers, farmers and academics, to mention but a few areas. Their social advances through art, music, and culture cannot be overlooked. It is difficult, of course, to focus on these achievements as the country remains gripped by this senseless conflict. But we need to maintain this perspective to ensure that women will help to steer the country’s economic, political and social future.

As we move forward, the space for women in Syria has to be enlarged, not diminished. This must start with making women key partners to peace, mediation, and negotiation processes in line with the word and spirit of Security Council’s resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. Importantly, Security Council resolution 2122, adopted on 18 October this year, puts stronger measures in place for women to participate in all phases of conflict prevention, resolution and recovery, placing the duty of providing them with seats at the peace table on Member States, regional organizations and the United Nations itself.

Achieving a peaceful resolution to this crisis will not be possible without women’s participation. Securing this is not only a human rights imperative; it is also part of ensuring that any agreement reached is actually sustainable in the long term.

Ten days ago, we marked the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which promises equality for all people in the world, stressing that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin. Women, like all other segments of society, deserve that this promise of equality is ensured as the next steps for Syria are negotiated and decided. Women must have a say in shaping the future of their country.

I can imagine the women in Syria will bring a different perspective to the table, reminding negotiators of the daily reality of many in Syria today: how to protect displaced children from the cold of the winter; how to stop the destruction of schools and hospitals; how to enlarge the political space when the fighting stops so that dialogue replaces the gun; and how to live in harmony in a country free of sectarianism, totalitarianism, and fundamentalism. All these “isms”are the enemies of women.

We know that when women are not adequately represented in post-conflict situations, the issues which concern them most are not given priority. Having women’s voices at the negotiating table is crucial for ensuring that agreements do not compromise on women’s rights and do not allow women’s role in public life to be diminished. Sustainable peace cannot be built on discrimination and women’s subordination.

The planned talks are giving new hope to many Syrians. It is crucial to translate the letter of the Security Council resolutions and the demands of women into reality, and to ensure equal participation of women in such discussions. We cannot continue with business as usual – we must insist on a shift in implementation to ensure that women take their rightful place in conflict prevention and resolution, protection and peace-building. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women rightly remarked that the implementation of the Security Council agenda on women, peace and security must be placed into the broader framework of the implementation of the Convention and its Optional Protocol. Among the measures recommended by the Committee to achieve this goal are the following: the need to ensure that women and civil society organizations focused on women’s issues are included equally in all peace negotiations and post-conflict rebuilding and reconstruction efforts; the inclusion of women in negotiation and mediation activities as delegates, including at senior levels; and provision of leadership training to women to ensure their effective participation in the post-conflict political process. These should be put into effect in the framework of the forthcoming Geneva II peace talks.

The elimination of discrimination against women is a fundamental objective and is a prerequisite to effectively dismantle the obstacles to women’s participation in all spheres of life. Participation in public life is not just about ensuring parity and representation, but about building environments that value and promote women’s voices. We must guarantee women’s right to publicly claim, advocate and defend their human rights in all places, whether at work, in public protest, or at home. A woman’s right to realize all her human rights and engage in civic activism if she so chooses is as legitimate as a man’s, and States have an obligation to ensure a woman can do this without fear of intimidation, slander, moral pressure or physical attack.

Where these conditions exist, peace and social welfare can flourish. When women are empowered to participate and claim their rights, they can demand accountability, and in this way, will build more just societies. This, and no less, is what we must to aim at in the case of Syria.