- Research demonstrates that peace agreements tend to last longer with women’s participation in their creation. Yet at the 2014 Geneva II Conference, not a single woman represented the Syrian regime or opposition delegation to the United Nations.
- Within Syria, women are underrepresented both in national government and local councils, as a result of security concerns and conservative societal beliefs regarding women’s participation in public life.
- Efforts to amplify Syrian women’s voices in international peace processes, like the U.N.-established Women’s Advisory Board, have been met with challenges: a failure to incorporate grassroots actors, societal attitudes toward women in activism, and security threats contribute to a lack of a unified feminist discourse on the international stage.
Women’s participation in peacebuilding and governance has made some strides in recent years, with key women elected to leadership positions and women breaking ground in local governance in some areas, but remains stunted overall. Women’s participation in peacebuilding efforts, whether in government or civil society, can be attributed to a factors such as patriarchal categorizations of women as unqualified to safety concerns, but results in Syrian women’s exclusion.
Local and international actors have affirmed the necessity of women’s participation in government and peace processes in Syria, but the inclusion of women in both has remained low. As part of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) five-year plan, the Syrian government pledged in 2005 to increase women’s participation in public life and decision making to 30 percent, but in 2016 failed to reach half of that number. Likewise, the opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council, says it is taking steps to reach the U.N. standard of 30 percent representation of women, but there is only one woman on its political committee. The U.N. has also been outspoken about the value of women in negotiations, but Syrian peace talks in 2014 did not include a single woman.
Women in Syria were first given the right to vote and hold office in 1953, but have only held small numbers of seats in parliament and other positions of power since that time, with notable exceptions: the election of Souhair Attasi as vice-president of the National Coalition in 2012. The following year, Attasi went on to become the first woman to head a session of the Arab League. In 2016, the Syrian parliament elected Hadiyeh al-Abbas as its first female speaker. Notably, women in Manbij pushed their civilian council to expand representation and now constitute 40 percent of council members. Kurdish women and women in Kurdish-governed areas have experienced a radical increase in social and political activity and visibility, both in formal political and civil society arenas.
However, these women are the exception, not the rule, and attempts at change have largely fallen flat. Comments from CEDAW in 2007 expressed concern about “the lack of measures” adopted toward having a 30 percent representation of women at decision-making levels, as well as “the continuing low levels of representation of women in public and political life … particularly in municipal, town, and village levels.” Three years later, women still held only 10 percent of ministerial positions, 11 percent of diplomatic posts, and 13 percent of judgeships. In 2012, following a campaign by the Syrian Women’s League, a local civil society organization, an addition was made to the Syrian Constitution guaranteeing women full and effective participation in political, social, cultural, and economic life. However, no concrete measures followed this declaration. Nationally, women held only 13 percent of seats in parliament in 2016, a proportion lower than both the global and regional averages, and estimates place female participation in local councils between two and four percent.
Kurdish parties have addressed these inequities by prioritizing gender equality in social, legal, and political spheres. Every city in areas controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), for example, has a joint presidency between men and women, and a woman currently serves as the PYD’s co-chairperson. These direct political gains have been accompanied by other measures such as the outlawing of polygamy and combating child marriage and violence against women, because women’s political exclusion is often a symptom of women’s wider societal exclusion.
Facing obstacles to formal participation in governance, some women choose to engage in peacebuilding through participation in civil society. Women Now for Development was founded in 2012 with the general mission of supporting and empowering Syrian women and girls, and since that time has expanded to include six centers across two countries that provide professional, educational, civic, and psychological support. Another group, Jana, was formed by 10 women in Raqqa in 2013 with the aims of rebuilding their society and promoting gender equality. Though, as with governance, despite these exceptions, participation in civil society remains low: a recent study by the Badael Project, a local initiative to strengthen civil society in peacebuilding, found that out of 94 civil society groups interviewed, only 15 percent had a majority female membership, while 31 percent had no women at all.
Policy Implications and Challenges
In response to the lack of female representation in U.N. peace negotiations, U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura established the Women’s Advisory Board (WAB) in 2016, separate from formal delegations, to contribute to negotiations. The WAB consists of 12 Syrian women from different backgrounds and political affiliations seen as leaders in their communities. The board is not, however, universally celebrated. Many argue that it was created as mere decoration and lacks real power, while others believe that the women selected are simply not representative of all Syrian women.
Local actors are further alienated from peace processes by the lack of information made available to them. Only 33 percent of women activists living in Syria reported adequate access to information about peacebuilding efforts on the international level and the feedback loop from the formal to informal process was identified as the most significant challenge to local women’s ability to influence and participate in either. All parties involved must prioritize Syrian women’s access to information regarding the wider peace process so they may participate, and through this empowerment and engagement have the ability to better fight social, legal, and political barriers to gender equality in Syria.
Despite rhetoric from the Syrian government, opposition governments, and the U.N. about increasing the visibility and engagement of women in public life, no meaningful action has encouraged this change. Excluding women from decision making is symptomatic of patriarchy in Syrian society and reinforces it. Without providing women opportunities to act as leaders in their communities, current gender inequalities will only persist.
Amid War, Women Are Starting to Make a Mark on Syrian Politics
The conflict in Syria has shifted traditional roles within communities and more women are starting to play roles in politics at all levels. But their overall influence remains minimal, leaving Syria’s destiny in the hands of men.
BEIRUT – Nursel Kilic is proud to be part of what she called a growing feminist movement in the Kurdish-controlled Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, commonly known as Rojava. A self-described “militant,” Kilic is working to give the Kurdish Women’s Movement international exposure.
“We want to convey the point of view of women and represent their struggle for a new social model,” Kilic told Syria Deeply.
The new model in the self-proclaimed Kurdish canton aims to be a blueprint for the future of a decentralized and democratic Syria. However, political agency remains elusive for the majority of women in the rest of Syria, where the question of political representation becomes entangled with the quandary of who is in control.
In 2014, the leading political force in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), promulgated a 30-clause equality decree for gender equality at the social, economic and political levels. It also established a power-sharing system that requires a female counterpart in all positions at all levels of government and enforced a 40 percent quota of women in all governmental institutions and bodies.
“The system of co-presidents is a guarantee to a confederal system based on the liberation of women,” Kilic said, adding that female popular assemblies are also increasingly emerging at the local level. New laws have since been introduced, including the abolition of underage marriage and polygamy, and the women-only internal police unit known as Asayish actively combats violence against women.
Groups of non-Kurdish women also reportedly created similar female popular assemblies and battalions in villages liberated from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), including in Manbij and Raqqa. This, Kilic believes, is evidence that the Kurdish model can expand to the rest of Syria and beyond.
“This is not only a new model for Kurdish women, but also for Arab and Assyrian women,” Kilic said. “The fight of women is universal.”
However, Kilic noted that the feminist movement in Rojava is deeply rooted in the ideology promoted by Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish nationalist leader and a founding member of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), who sees the advancement of women as synonymous with progress. Though some western media depicted Kurdish female fighters as a new phenomenon, their current achievements are born from a struggle that has extended across 40 years and a history rich with examples of women warriors, from Kara Fatma – who led an army of men during the Turkish War of Independence – to Leyla Qasim, who was hanged after rebelling against the Baath regime in Iraq.
Consequently, some analysts view the Kurdish experience as too foreign to take root in the rest of the country.
“The Kurdish women of Rojava are not Syrian,” Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Syria Deeply. “They barely speak Arabic, I am not sure we can consider them to be adding to the political participation of women in Syria.”
South of Rojava and past the last ISIS pockets, the issue of female political agency is complicated by broader competitions for relevancy in Syria’s future. “We do not really have a political process in Syria right now for either men or women to emerge from as political leaders,” Ziadeh said. “What we have instead is a tragedy that can [hurt] any leader.”
Historically, Syrian women have had some political representation, obtaining the right to vote in 1949 – while a progressive European country like Switzerland only granted this right in 1971. In 1990, women held 9 percent of seats in parliament while British women only held 6 percent. In its Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) five-year plan, the Syrian government vowed to increase women’s participation in public life and decision-making to 30 percent by 2005. Despite the country’s fall into armed conflict, in 2016 Syrian women still held 13 percent of seats, compared to roughly 3 percent in Lebanon.
“The presence of women in the political arena is minimal,” Mariam Jalabi, a member of the Women’s Advisory Committee at the U.N. and director of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces’ Representative Office, told Syria Deeply.
According to former independent Syrian M.P. Maria Saade, the Syrian parliament still grants women greater opportunities than in most Arab countries. “Even someone like me, who comes from an environment unrelated to politics as well as from a Christian family, can [enter parliament],” Saade told Syria Deeply.
Saade, who set aside her career as an architect in 2012 to work in parliament until 2016, says she went into politics to convey “the voice of the Syrian people” and was largely successful in doing so.
“Inside parliament my words were a little bit different,” Saade said, alluding to the fact that she softened the speeches she gave at the United Nations. However, other members of the parliament generally respected and took into consideration the ideas expressed by female representatives, she said.
In 2016 Hadiyeh al-Abbas, who previously served in the regional branch of the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party for a decade, was nominated the first female speaker of parliament. Another woman, Najah al-Attar, has been in office as Syrian vice president since 2006 after having served as culture minister from 1976 to 2000.
According to Saade, the reason women are still a minority in parliament is not due to a lack of opportunities but to the paternalistic culture women grew up in and introjected.
“It takes a strong woman to enter parliament,” Saade said, adding that meekness is not a good quality in politics. “However, women can still improve [their position] outside parliament.”
A study by the Forced Migration Review noted how, out of sheer necessity following the outbreak of the conflict, Syrian women have become actively involved in the civil society and transformed themselves into “agents of change.” For example, in besieged areas, women have taken risks regularly to help smuggle medicine or food past checkpoints, as they were less likely to be frisked than men.
While the conflict arguably brought about a turnaround of traditional roles within community structures, political representation is still scarce in the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) – the grassroots administrative groups that emerged in territories under the control of the Syrian opposition.
The available data puts female representation in the 427 local councils at approximately 2-4 percent. Lama Kannout, a founding member of the Syrian Feminist Lobby and author of a study on the political participation of Syrian women in the political arena, identified a drop in the number of female representatives in the LCCs since they emerged in 2011.
“There has been a gradual disappearance of women from the local councils,” Kannout told Syria Deeply. In 2012, Idlib’s local council, for instance, had five female members out of a total of 20. She cited a 2016 survey by the Omran institute, which found that women made up 2 percent in only 105 of the 427 local councils.
According to Kannout, the reasons behind the scant female presence are mainly cultural, including lower levels of education and society’s tendency to elect men with connections to certain families or ethnic groups.
A study by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting also noted the strong influence of military groups over the nomination of candidates by the local councils. As decisions are taken by majority vote, this is bound to result in the marginalization of Syrian women on the ground.
Beyond the country’s borders, however, Syrian women in the opposition are taking new steps to increase their representation. Jalabi told Syria Deeply about a forthcoming “women’s political movement for Syria” that is set to launch its mission for effective female political representation in mid-October and present at the U.N. later this year.
“What is special about this movement is that we are getting a couple of sponsors but it is purely Syrian-led and women-led,” Jalabi said, adding that the new group will mark the women’s rejection of their role as advisers and their reclaiming of a place in the political arena.
One of the movement’s goals is to enforce the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution’s 30 percent quota for female representation.
“This article has not been implemented despite all the efforts,” Jalabi said. “[This is] because we live in a patriarchal society and a U.N. patriarchal society that has made no sincere efforts to ensure that women are included at the [negotiations] table.”
U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura established the Women’s Advisory Board in 2016 to increase the participation of Syrian women in the peace talks. However, Jalabi and the other women on the board have advisory roles and have not been granted access to all the talks the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) – the opposition delegation at peace talks in Geneva – takes part in.
Rather than increasing women’s participation, Jalabi says the creation of the advisory board further encouraged their marginalization. “It created this nice excuse for the Syrian opposition to also create an advisory committee instead of including women at the negotiations table,” Jalabi said, referring to the fact that the HNC also created a women’s consulting group rather than increasing the number of women.
Female participation in the HNC is limited to two representatives, while no women were present among the opposition military delegations at the Astana peace talks. Similarly, the meetings held in Riyadh in August to gauge the possibility of a united front for the opposition did not include any female representatives.
However, studies have proved the link between women’s decision-making power with regard to the peace process and the likelihood of a lasting agreement. While Syrian women are active agents of change within their communities, there is so far little indication of sufficient political agency, which Jalabi said calls for a more assertive stance.
“We don’t want to be the civil society, we don’t want to be selected [by men] because of our family ties or because we are not considered a threat,” Jalabi said. “We want to create a real movement of women.”
- Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) now comprise 35–40 percent of Kurdish military forces and strive for gender equality both on the battlefield, where they command mixed-sex forces, and at home in Rojava, the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Syria.
- Inspired in part by the YPJ, other Syrian women have become increasingly visible in security forces and local councils, and there are now over 1,000 women in the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
- The Syrian government, likewise, has created a women’s unit within the National Defense Force, and the group now has about 3,000 women in its ranks.
The success of the female units in the Kurdish Defense Forces, known as the YPJ, has inspired the creation of all-female brigades across diverse groups, from the Syrian Republican Guard to the Islamic State. Women living in areas liberated from the Islamic State by the YPJ have also formed their own military councils and police forces, empowered by the sight of women in combat. However, they continue to face stiff resistance to their combat roles because of social and patriarchal pressures on women to remain at home.
While the United States does have a funding program to aid and equip vetted Syrian opposition forces, the program does not contain gender-specific provisions, and the most recent Department of Defense budget does not specify which groups will be receiving the arms and support pledged by the White House in May 2017. Additionally, a bill aiming to increase the number of women in foreign security forces seems to have stalled in the Committee on Foreign Relations.
Women served in the Syrian military prior to 2011, primarily in administration, military logistics, and supply units. In 2012, the National Defense Force was formed to formalize and consolidate militias supporting President Bashar al-Assad, and by 2013 an all-female unit was added to the force, nicknamed “Lionesses of National Defense.” Based on 2016 estimates, there are now about 3,000 women serving in the defense force, including 130 women snipers in the Republican Guard Brigade. The majority of these women serve at roadblocks and checkpoints, but a spokesman for the defense force reported that they also serve in combat roles.
In 2017, Al-Masdar News published a video of a women’s battalion singing patriotic songs and shooting weapons. The battalion was revealed to be a new women’s combat force. Reportedly made up of 150 women from the Qamishli region in northern Syria and led by a woman, the battalion appears to be based on the model of Kurdish female forces. Critics, however, say that these women are being used as propaganda, their roles in the war exaggerated for political ends or flaunted to present a gender-progressive facade to the West.
As early as 2014 headlines had appeared claiming that Islamic State fighters were “terrified” of being killed by female troops, primarily in reference to female Kurdish forces. But women’s participation in Kurdish security units far predates the Islamic State. Women make up 35–40 percent of Kurdish military forces, and women in direct combat are known to command mixed-sex forces. A YPJ spokeswoman stated in an interview that their battles are not only military but also moral, as they fight against oppression at the hands of extremists but also within their own society. Despite a commitment to women’s equality in the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Syria, where at least 50 percent of all political offices must be held by women, some female fighters reported joining the force to flee arranged marriages or conservative families.
The YPJ has inspired other women in the areas liberated by Kurdish forces, prompting establishment of women’s forces in places like Manbij and al-Bab. In Manbij, more than 50 women have joined the Asayish Police Force, while the city’s civilian council is now expanding to better represent ethnic and tribal communities, and women now constitute at least 40 percent of its members. In nearby al-Bab, the local military council announced the formation of an all-female battalion, a Kurdish-Arab joint initiative associated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that will be deployed against the Islamic State, inspired by Kurdish Women’s Protection Units. Aleppo police chief Adeeb al-Shalaf announced in July 2017 the creation of a program to train an all-female police force to be used across the region.
More than 1,000 Arab women have joined the SDF, though they report great resistance from their families and communities. Conservative Arab families reportedly find it “bizarre” for a woman to take up arms, and in some cases are willing to disown their daughters over the issue. Despite this, the number of Arab women joining local militias has been great enough to warrant the SDF’s creation of an Arab Women’s Battalion in 2017, called the Battalion of Martyr Amara, to fight the Islamic State and, they say, patriarchy.
While it has insisted on strict separation of the sexes, the Islamic State also uses women in some security forces, primarily in its internal security services, policing the streets or running checkpoints. The al-Khansaa Brigade is an all-female morality police force that patrols Raqqa to enforce proper dress code adherence and male accompaniment. Those found in violation of these laws are detained, given lashes, or, by some accounts, maimed with a tool known as a “biter.” The Umm al-Rayan Brigade staffs checkpoints to search women with the aim of uncovering smuggling and male activists disguised as women. More recently, as the Islamic State faced defeats in its land operations by October of this year, it called on women to defend the caliphate alongside its male soldiers.
Policy Implications and Challenges
Although media coverage of Kurdish female fighters has at times been eroticized, often portraying them as the liberated antitheses of oppressed, subservient Arab women, women’s participation in Syria’s security sector is far more important than providing it a “pretty face.” A number of studies suggest that greater women’s participation in global security forces will increase their effectiveness. Women are more likely to report sexual and domestic violence to female police officers, have fewer reports of inappropriate behavior than their male counterparts, and provide access to local populations inaccessible by male officers. The U.S. and the United Nations have recognized this, and a bill was introduced to the U.S. Senate in September 2016 to increase the participation of women in foreign security forces with U.S. assistance. It was referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations but has not resurfaced since that referral.
Though the U.S. chose in July 2017 to end its covert CIA program to arm and train Syrian rebels, the country will continue to aid vetted Syrian opposition forces through its Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund. The Department of Defense FY18 budget allocates $500 million for Syria training and equipping programs, an increase of about $70 million from the previous year. In May 2017, the U.S. announced that it would be funding “Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces” while at the same time continuing “to prioritize support for Arab elements of the SDF.” This lack of specificity means that no direct gender provisions are present. If the U.S. and others wish to address issues facing Syrian women, from violence against women to assault in prison, the cultivation of women in security forces is important, and merits specific action to do this.
Women at Forefront of Humanitarian Demining Efforts in Syria
The explosive remnants of war pose a long-term threat to reconstruction and peacebuilding efforts in Syria. Women, however, are playing a notably growing role as humanitarian groups shift their focus to land-mine clearing and risk education.
Many parts of Syria are literally booby-trapped.
During its retreat from its de facto capital of Raqqa in October and from other areas, the so-called Islamic State filled houses, buildings and roads with homemade explosives. Meanwhile, the Syrian government and Russian-backed forces dropped thousands upon thousands of explosives across the country during aerial bombardments, and unexploded cluster bombs and other ordnance now litter villages and towns. These explosive remnants of war (ERW) continue to kill and injure civilians in many areas every day.
As the larger conflict dies down somewhat, humanitarian groups are shifting their focus to land-mine clearing and risk education about unexploded ordnance. At the forefront of many of these efforts are Syrian women, who are well-placed to spread the warnings in family, cultural and educational settings.
Widespread Use of ERW
Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said that ISIS placed the vast majority of improvised explosive devices during their retreats to “continue their fight remotely.” According to Kayyali, most of the ERW reports coming out of Syria, particularly those involving rigged land mines, are linked to ISIS because of “how creative” the group has been. In former ISIS-controlled territories, civilians have reported that the doorways to their homes, their beds, their shoes and even their children’s toys have been rigged with explosive devices. However, HRW has also recorded lesser but significant ERW use by all warring groups in Syria. “Certainly the Syrian government is using them,” Kayyali said.
Alannah Ellis, program support officer for the HALO Trust’s Syria program, noted that ERW have also been left behind by Syrian and Russian militaries and non-state armed groups, but these are often cluster munitions that fell to the ground without exploding during aerial bombardments. “We are finding bits of everything from everyone. It changes village by village [based on] who has been fighting there, but overall the ERW are from everyone,” she said. “We have seen the use of land mines in besieged areas to keep civilians from fleeing into northern Syria,” she said. “We received three unconfirmed reports that link the Syrian government to the use of land mines in [the city of] Uqayribat.”
ERW mostly kill civilians. For the HALO Trust, the danger that ERW poses to children is a priority for their team members in Syria. Unexploded ammunition, especially cluster bombs dropped from Syrian regime airplanes, often resemble the types of balls and tiny marbles that children play with. These deadly weapons become attractive playthings.
In early October, the HALO Trust dispatched risk educators to schools in the northwestern province of Idlib to teach schoolchildren about the dangers of interacting with ERW. At the end of the lesson, two small schoolchildren approached HALO’s workers, unzipped their backpacks and emptied the contents onto a desk. “Their backpacks were full of cluster ammunition,” said Ellis. “They had just been taught not to pick up ERW and they had backpacks full of them.”
Kayyali recounted a similar story from Idlib, where a young child was spotted walking down the street with his arms full of ERW. In both cases, explosives experts were able to intervene in time, but Ellis said that stories like these illustrate the importance of clearance operations and risk education to teach civilians how to safely navigate their communities when ERW abound.
The Role of Women
The HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian mine-clearance organization, is currently working in northern and southern Syria to conduct a contamination impact survey, victim data collection and risk education to civilians. The organization is hopeful that its survey work will give humanitarian organizations an in-depth understanding of the extent of ERW in Syria so that plans for clearance operations and victim rehabilitation can begin.
In order to successfully operate within Syria, HALO has hired Syrian women to work on their risk education and surveying teams. The women, who make up 20 percent of HALO’s team members in Syria, educate locals on how to spot different types of ERW and how to act safely when navigating areas heavy in unexploded ammunition. They also visit local communities to determine how much of the land is contaminated with ERW and to meet with victims to record data on accident occurrence and provide rehabilitation assistance.
The HALO Trust has a history of employing women in its clearance operations in other countries, even in countries such as Syria, where women can be discouraged through social norms from working outside of the home. HALO sought out women in Syria because, as locals, they know the landscape of their local towns; empowering women, through employment, is also a key priority for the organization.
“We make sure that women are valued stakeholders in what happens in the countries we work in, so we are making a concerted effort to recruit women [in Syria and around the world],” said Louise Vaughan, head of media at the HALO Trust.
Alannah Ellis emphasized the importance of having women involved in risk education and survey taking in Syria because of the social restrictions placed on many women within the country. “Without women on our teams, we would be unable to reach half of the population in Syria, which means that without employing women we would not be able to reach civilian women to teach them about victim analysis and risk education.”
Women have volunteered, too, for the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, where one of their primary roles is to educate children on ERW and how to avoid them. According to Majd Khalaf of the White Helmets, the Syrian Civil Defense has a total of five clearance teams working in northern and southern Syria. The clearance teams, known as UXO teams, are currently staffed with all-male volunteers.
“When we originally did the training in Syria we only had male volunteers; now it is too dangerous to bring the trainer back into Syria to train women, but when we can we will,” said Khalaf.
Recruiting women to work in clearance operations has not been without its challenges in Syria. “There have been recruiting challenges, especially for the survey element because it is considered a male-dominated job, and there is a perception that it is a bit dangerous because they are going around and viewing [ERW] sites,” said Ellis. The HALO Trust has got around this social perception by working with local partner organizations such as Shafak, a humanitarian organization that was developed at the start of the Syrian crisis. Shafak has had a trusted presence in local communities for years because of the aid it provides for civilians. “Shafak has been in the areas that we work for a long time, so people [trust them] and our teams have been able to grow from there,” Ellis said.
The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) works in over 40 countries to remove unexploded land mines. MAG is currently working in Syria to remove ERW but declined to speak on the record about the exact nature of its work there. “There are a lot of complexities on the ground, [including] patchwork quilts of alliances and interested parties … we keep a low profile [for] the best interests for everyone,” said Sean Sutton, international communications manager for MAG. Sutton did confirm that employing women to work in demining operations in the Middle East is a top priority for MAG.
Women comprise 20 percent of MAG’s technical demining teams in Lebanon and Iraq. This has provided the women with valuable wages to provide for themselves and their families and has changed the way that women are viewed within their communities. “When we first employed women in Lebanon, only a few women decided that they wanted the job. These women ended up becoming an example to their communities and they showed other women that they could do this work, that this work was not just men’s work … the women are empowered [through the work] and they speak strongly about that,” said Sutton.
The HALO Trust is currently training women in clearance operations in the south of Syria.
In the north, though, clearance operations have been blocked by cross-border disputes with neighboring countries, making it difficult for humanitarian organizations such as HRW and the HALO Trust to provide aid and conduct clearance operations in border towns.
Kayyali emphasized the bureaucracy challenges on both sides of the border that restrict clearance efforts. To reach Syrian territories that border Turkey, humanitarian experts have to seek approval from Turkish authorities. “This means having approval for the actual person to cross the border as well as separate approval to bring demining equipment past the border. You also need approval from Syria as well, and if you are crossing into territory that is not controlled by the Syrian government, you have to get the permission of whoever is in charge of that territory to cross into Syria,” said Kayyali. These challenges are contributing to the continuation of violence in northern towns such as Idlib – where the schoolchildren were seen picking up cluster ammunition.
Experts suggest that ridding Syria of ERW will take up to 30 years to complete. These extraordinary estimates make it clear that even when the conflict is over, the civil war will continue to impact civilians for decades. Clearance should be a priority of the international community, said Kayyali, not only because it decreases civilian deaths, but because without clearance, Syria will not be able to rebuild once the conflict is over. With explosives hidden beneath the rubble, laced underfoot in city roads and lining doorways of buildings and homes, the infrastructure of cities and towns will continue to crumble and it will be too dangerous for reconstruction efforts to begin.
“You cannot rebuild Syria if clearance operations don’t happen,” said Kayyali, “it spells disaster [for Syria].”