A proper democracy cannot be established without the participation of women. Such is the message of Syrian women's rights activists who concluded a two-day conference in Geneva on Monday to demand equal involvement in their country's peace-building process, which has so far mostly included men.
The activists on Monday asked the United Nations, which is brokering peace talks set to begin in Geneva on Jan. 22, to allow them to send women representatives. They also asked the international body to appoint a gender adviser to defend women's voices at the negotiating table.
The talks aim to end Syria's nearly three-year civil war, which arose from anti-government protests against President Bashar al-Assad, and has so-far left more than 100,000 people dead and created two million refugees. Another goal of the talks is to establish a viable path toward a functioning democracy.
Prominent Syrian activist Kefah ali Deeb said the call for the equal participation of women in peace talks carries a strong sense of urgency, as “no less than 80 percent" of the 9.3 million Syrians in need of aid are women and children.
"We cannot remain silent regarding events unfolding in Syria such as daily death, massive destruction, starvation of people and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrian families, in Syria and abroad, as well as the spread of terror, of violence, ongoing detentions, acts of kidnapping, destruction of infrastructures and the spread of diseases, particularly among children," she told reporters.
The conference was organized by U.N. Women, the international body's gender equality agency, and the government of the Netherlands, whose minister of foreign affairs sent a message to the participants: “The future of Syria should not exclusively be decided by those who carry arms.”
Nanette Braun of U.N. Women told Al Jazeera the conference met its goal of bringing together women leaders and activists in Syrian civil society to formulate joint demands.
“This is why we facilitated this conference,” she said. “We see it as crucial that 50 percent of the population are included in determining the future of their countries and society.”
The Syrian women issued a joint statement asking for a constitution that guarantees the rights of equal citizenship to the Syrian people “in all their diversity and affiliations,” as well as the adoption of various gender-based policies such as protecting women and girls against sexual exploitation, early marriage, human trafficking and rape.
Gender-based violence among victims of Syria's civil war is increasing. Since the start of the conflict in 2011, more than two million refugees have fled the country, most of whom have sought shelter in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan. According to a U.N. Women study, child marriages and domestic violence are on the rise among refugee families in Jordan.
Mothers cited economic stress as a contributing factor. Families living in refugee camps are more inclined to pull their daughters out of schools or marry them off at younger ages in exchange for sizeable dowries.
Women also indicated that their inability to leave home without a male chaperone, due to social expectations and dangerous conditions in the camps, added to their unhappiness.
Hibaaq Osman, founder of Karama, an international organization working for the inclusion of women in politics in the Middle East, assembled a collective of local Syrian woman in Damascus last week to discuss similar issues.
Osman told Al Jazeera that she believes women will be the ones to bring peace to Syria.
“Because they (women) have everything to lose,” Osman said, “they want to sustain peace.” While “men will be fighting over power, women are more pragmatic.”
Osman also praised the efforts of U.N. Women to bring women to the negotiators' table in Geneva next week.
“When we talk about women at the table, you know what the men will think, they will see them as the table cloth. (But) that's not the point,” she said. “In order for us to not be a table cloth, we need to send representatives. To spotlight their concerns.”
Armed conflict and periods of political transition are particularly prone to an increase in gender-based violence.
In Egypt, women played a prominent role in kicking off the 18-day protests at Tahrir Square that led to the toppling of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, but the country's National Council for Women was among the first to be abolished after the protests. Many women protesters were arrested and subjected to "virginity checks" by security forces. Street harassment and widespread intimidation has continued to hamper women's participation in the public sphere.