Promoting Equal Rights for Women in Syria

Open discussion between the Syrian delegation and Members of the European Parliament © European Union 2019

Promoting Equal Rights for Women in Syria

Syria’s civil war has been tearing the country apart for eight years. When it ends, political will, knowledge and expertise will be needed to build consensus for a democratic and inclusive society. In Syria, as in so many parts of the world, culture and tradition have limited women’s participation in public and political life, largely excluding them from decision-making. But women must be involved if any political transition is to be successful. Democracy can only take root if the human rights of both women and men are respected. An EU-funded project aimed to ensure women are equal partners in this process for a successful and sustainable outcome.

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"When the time comes for writing the new constitution of Syria, we will have the knowledge and tools to push for the inclusion of women’s rights."

The project ‘Supporting Transition towards Democracy in Syria through Preparing for an Engendered Constitution Building Process’ aimed to promote the role of women in Syria by strengthening the capacity of lawyers and human rights activists – both female and male – to lay the foundationsfor a Syrian society based on gender equality, reconciliation and peace.

It was co-funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the EU’s Tahdir programme (‘tahdir’ means ‘preparation’ in Arabic), which offers professional learning opportunities for qualified Syrians who will be able to take key roles in the transition to democracy once the conflict ends. The Tahdir programme was launched in 2014 as part of the EU’s reponse to the crisis in Syria. Its aim is to fund capacity-building projects for Syrian individuals who are committed to making a constructive contribution to the peace process. The actions it supports create continuous, practical learning opportunities for key Syrians who demonstrate their leadership potential and capacity to influence the country’s development, once a politically negotiated end of the conflict enables a process of national recovery to begin.

The programme targets qualified Syrians who have the ability to become key actors in the transition to democracy, helping them to acquire or deepen skills that will allow them to actively contribute to the future transition process, in their fields of expertise. It supports projects that give access to a range of experiences in the EU which can feed into preparations for the reforms needed to sustain any future Syrian peace agreement. Tahdir supports Syrians not only inside Syria, but also in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The activities of this project included workshops, conferences and meetings in Syria and Lebanon, three-day training sessions, intensive English courses, study visits to Sweden, France, Spain, Croatia and the EU institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg, as well as five three-month internships in EU Member States.

“The initiative has contributed to the creation of networks between Syrians in the country and elsewhere in the region,” says Hubert Duhot, International Relations Officer for the European Commission’s Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI). “Although the project ended formally in September 2017, activities continue beyond its lifetime. This intervention is part of EU-wide efforts to support Syrian civil society, especially women, making sure that in an inclusive political transition all Syrian citizens will feel at home in their own country.”

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Participants discussing at the European Parliament. © European Union 2019.

Creating a culture of democracy and equality

With the civil war ongoing in Syria, keeping people involved in the project safe was a major concern for the organisers. “Preserving our partners’ security was our first priority,” declares project coordinator Nada Nader of the Euromed Feminist Initiative (IFE-EFI). “The Syrian partners were consulted before determining the location and timing of each activity, to make sure it was not putting them at risk.” This sometimes meant unforeseen changes to plans and documents. “Thankfully, the Tahdir team was extremely cooperative and showed excellent context sensitivity.”

Nada Nader believes the project fully met its objectives: “The informal network of women’s rights lawyers (women and men) was strengthened and widened.” From a start-up number of 30-40, the group drew in 91 lawyers, of whom 71 were active throughout the entire project. “In a militarised context where gender equality is not a priority and involvement in civil society work is dangerous”, she adds, “this participation rate is proof of the project’s success. Many lawyers wanted to be part of the Tahdir programme because of the value they saw in it.”

One of those participants was Daad Mousa, a lawyer and women’s rights activist working in the Damascus area. “We are promoting a Syrian constitution that would respect and include women’s rights,” she says. “We have drafted gender-sensitive constitutional principles and are now promoting them. We work on capacity-building for lawyers and awareness-raising on a broader level to create a culture of democracy and equality. We are also trying to lobby at the international level for the inclusion of women and women’s rights in peace negotiations and in all processes dealing with the constitution. The project has connected Syrian lawyers who are now working together to promote gender equality.”

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Discussion between Women from Syria and MEP Terry Reintke
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Discussion between women from Syria and Terry Reintke, Member of the European Parliament. © European Union 2019.

Her colleague Narevan Bahsas also believes this work is vital. “When the time comes for writing the new constitution of Syria, we will have the knowledge and tools to push for the inclusion of women’s rights,” she notes. “This was a game-changer because it has gathered Syrian lawyers and driven them to work in a systemic way on gendering constitution and legislation.” 

Practical tools for an inclusive future

The initiative generated extensive exchanges and cooperation with European counterparts and international institutions, which will continue into the future. Several of the participants are now assisting the United Nations, for instance, in teams appointed by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura to work on the Syrian constitutional process, and in the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. Several of the network’s lawyers take part in international initiatives to support the constitution building process in Syria. “All these lawyers now have the gender sensitivity needed to produce alternative laws and propose articles to ensure gender equality in the constitution,” points out Nada Nader.

In addition, the project has produced practical tools such as the successful ‘ABC for a Gender Sensitive Constitution’. Published in English and Arabic, this handbook is already in use by the UN and by constitutional experts and communities discussing democracy throughout the Euromed region and beyond. In 2017, the project completed and published a pioneering comparative study of constitutional processes in the Arab world from a gender perspective.

The publication of media articles, decision-makers’ statements, national and international reports on the issues of women’s rights and gender equality in Syria, including EFI and other institutions’ reports, clearly shows a growing interest among the public, democratic movements and the international community in these issues.

Background

Established in 2014 as an EU instrument to support security initiatives and peace-building activities in partner countries, the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP) funds activities in the areas of crisis response, conflict prevention, peace-building and crisis preparedness, as well as response to global, trans-regional and emerging threats.

The Euromed Feminist Initiative (IFE-EFI) advocates gender equality and women’s rights as part of democracy and citizenship, for the right of people to self-determination, and against militarism, war and occupation. IFE-EFI seeks to improve and promote women’s rights as universal human rights, the value of gender equality and the use of non-violent means to solve conflicts. Its criterion and position aligns with the international resolutions and conventions and regional instruments promoting the universality of women’s rights and strengthening women’s impact and voices in conflict resolution.