LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the early days of Syria's uprising, many women called on men not to take up arms in response to the Syrian government's brutal clampdown on street protests. Now, they are trying to build peace between supporters of rebel groups and supporters of the government.
"We believe that activists can act as a force to push all the warring parties into negotiations to initiate the peace process," Sabah Hallak, board member of the Syrian Women's League, said in a meeting on the sidelines of the four-day global summit to end sexual violence in conflict in London that ends Friday.
Ahead of the U.N.-backed peace talks earlier this year, the Syrian Women's League asked the then international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi to include women in the negotiations "because when warlords take over, usually the first thing that goes out is women's rights and women's issues," Hallak said.
Government soldiers have used rape to force communities to surrender or to punish people in former rebel-held areas, according to activists at the meeting.
Some who have been imprisoned for their role in the uprising said sexual violence, and the threat of it, is often used in government prisons.
At the same time extremist Islamist groups bar women from leaving their homes, and have forced widows to marry Islamist fighters.
SURROUNDED BY HELL
More than 160,000 people have been killed in Syria's civil war. Nearly 3 million refugees have sought sanctuary abroad, while 9 million people inside the country need aid.
"Syrians are surrounded by hell. Hell in the sky from the regime's bombardment, and hell on the ground from jihadists," said Samar Yazbek, a Syrian writer who joined the protests in 2011 and was forced to flee the country and live in hiding after being imprisoned by the Syrian government.
"As the regime's offensive intensifies from the skies, the social constraints from Islamists intensify on the ground, and the main victims are women," she added.
Another woman who fled Syria after being imprisoned by the government for her role in the uprising, is trying to build peace across the boundaries.
Majed Chourbaji, manager of the Women Now Center, described one workshop in a refugee camp in Lebanon to teach widows about peacebuilding. By the end of it, the widows were writing letters to the wives of the men who had killed their husbands, she said.
“They were aware that women on the other side (of the conflict) were going through the same thing,” Chourbaji added.
“Weapons and arms can take down a dictator, but they can't build a country and the only way for us to build a nation is through peaceful activism and peacebuilding initiatives.”