Peace talks on S. Sudan, Syria: Where are the women?

Rebels from South Sudan sent three women to Addis Ababa. But the government sent none. Syria talks in Geneva lack any women participants.

Birahnu Sebsibe/Reuters
Delegates attend the signing of a ceasefire agreement to end more than five weeks of fighting after negotiations in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 23, 2014. South Sudan's government and rebels signed a ceasefire last week to end more than five weeks of fighting that divided Africa's newest nation and brought it to the brink of civil war.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Freedom at Issue blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

The current peace negotiations on Syria and South Sudan hold out the hope of mitigating and even resolving two of the world’s most destructive civil wars.

But the talks are undermined by the glaring absence of women, who account for most of the millions of people displaced by the conflicts and will have an important role to play in any post-conflict political process.

The South Sudan peace talks, being held in Ethiopia, are notable for the fact that women, for the first time in such discussions, are part of one of the delegations.

The opposition’s 10-person contingent includes three women, all members of the national parliament in Juba.

However, the government’s delegation consists entirely of men.

Even worse, the Syrian peace negotiations in Geneva are being conducted by male-only delegations on both sides. Syrian women peace activists have been sidelined, and their efforts to present a Syrian Women’s Charter for Peace have so far been unsuccessful. The charter seeks to prevent the movement of more armed combatants into Syria, and takes a broad view of peace that extends beyond simply ending the fighting.

Specifically, the document addresses the urgent needs of refugees and internally displaced persons (over 80 percent of whom are women and children), and demands that women have an equal role in the forging of any new political consensus and constitution.

Syrian activist Kefah ali Deeb has argued that by excluding the voice of half of Syria’s population, the conveners of the Geneva talks are seriously damaging their chances for lasting success.

The Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace has laid out a Seven-Point Roadmap to a Gender-Sensitive Peacebuilding Process to address the problem, but it has made little headway to date.

While Britain urged the United Nations to ensure women’s participation through a consultative body at the Geneva talks, such a backseat role is hardly the answer, as decision making would remain in the hands of men who have demonstrated no inclination to consider women’s demands, ideas, and concerns.

Insisting on women’s participation in critical peace talks is not a new concept. Over a decade ago, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 explicitly called for all parties in any conflict to respect women’s rights, and to support their participation in peace negotiations and post-conflict reconstruction.

However, the practical reality since then has been deeply disappointing. Of 24 peace negotiations from 2000 to 2011, more than half featured women’s participation of 5 percent or less. In 9 of these 24 -- Somalia (twice), Côte d’Ivoire, Nepal, Central African Republic (twice), Zimbabwe, Iraq, and Yemen -- women were completely excluded.

This track record eventually led to a progress review by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, and then to the unanimous adoption in October 2013 of Security Council Resolution 2122, which details a systemic approach to implementation of the prior commitments.

The Geneva peace talks on Syria are seen as the first real test of Resolution 2122 -- and of a US National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security that was passed two years ago. The speed at which these commitments have been swept aside or forgotten is remarkable.

There had been reason to hope that things might be different this time. Consider the spotlight shone on the peace-building role of women when the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 went to Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee and Yemen’s Tawakkul Karman.

In another positive sign in 2012, the UN gender-equality organization, UN Women, acted as a champion and facilitator for Malian women’s demands to participate in the peace negotiations for that country, held in neighboring Burkina Faso.

More recently, delegates from the Central African Republic chose a woman, Catherine Samba-Panza, as their new interim president, entrusting her with the responsibility of ending protracted fighting between rival militias.

The victimization of women and children during periods of conflict is an established fact, as is the recognition that decisions to resort to violent conflict remain almost entirely in the hands of men.

Both the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa have a long way to go in demonstrating respect for the human rights of all persons, but women are singled out for further disrespect when they are excluded from critical negotiations on matters that affect them, their children, and their communities directly.

The Syrian and South Sudanese negotiations must follow a more inclusive path toward peace if they are to produce durable settlements that end the extreme suffering of both countries’ populations.

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