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How a Senseless and Unlawful Attack on Northeastern Syria is a Major Blow to Women’s Rights

Since 2012, the Kurds and other minority groups in North and North-eastern Syria have managed to enjoy semi-autonomous status within the war-torn country. Soon that could all be gone.

Image credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images
WILPF International Secretariat
17 October 2019

Since 2012, the Kurds and other minority groups in North and North-eastern Syria have managed to enjoy semi-autonomous status within the war-torn country. For much of that time and especially after the collapse of Daesh, the people in that region were able to enjoy some of the freedoms they had been deprived of for many years. Until just a week ago, Rojava was a home to a number of civil society movements including women’s rights groups that operated with relative freedom and security. 

According to Shivan, an activist in Hasakeh, and WILPF’s own mapping report, civil society organisations in the area had managed to pressure local governments into issuing several articles and decrees improving and protecting women’s rights. Among those were measures criminalising underage marriage and polygamy, imposing 50% gender-quotas on local municipalities and general administrative organisations and establishing a women-only village where women who had lost everything could live, work and thrive.  

Soon that could all be gone.

The quick turn of events has devastated local communities

Shivan, an activist in Hasakeh, spoke to WILPF of the dire situation of women and children displaced as a result of the Turkish offensive on the area

“Everything happened all of a sudden with no warning. We had to put aside all our work on Women’s Empowerment programmes and focus on providing food and shelter to those affected.Said Shivan from PEL-Civil Waves, an organisation working in Northern Syria with the goal of achieving an equal and democratic society.

This month US President Trump announced the withdrawal of US forces that had been a crucial element in the uneasy balance of power in the region and within days Turkey invaded. Now with no one to protect them and a justifiable fear of ethnic cleansing by the Turkish forces, the Kurds had to turn to the regime in Damascus for help. 

With the Syrian armed forces entering the area, this comes at a huge cost. The reinstatement of the authoritarian rule of the Syrian government will in all likelihood be devastating for activists and civil society groups. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been detained or forcibly disappeared by government forces. Many activists in Rojava have already fled the region for a fear of persecution. 

“Years of building a genuine feminist movement and exceptional work towards an equal society are at a risk of total collapse,” Shivan said. 

Since 2011, Syrian civilians have been paying the price for the wider world’s political rivalries.  Men in Damascus, Washington, Moscow and Tehran have made decisions and women in Syria have been left to pick up the pieces of their ruined lives. Despite their continuous effort to resist tyranny and injustice in a highly militarised environment, it seems a dark new chapter in that book is about to be written. 

“This is now fertile ground for the rebirth of ISIS and a return to the oppression of women,” a leading Syrian woman activist told WILPF. 

Syrian human rights organisation and civil society groups are being harassed in Turkey 

Turkey plays host to an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees and many Syrian organisations and civil society groups that operate in Northern Syria have their bases there. Although most of them categorically oppose the Turkish aggression on northern Syria, it is dangerous to voice their views. The Turkish government has with increasing regularity over the past years been harassing Syrian activists with raids on their offices and forcibly returning refugees back to Syria. In this article, we had to use pseudonyms as all the activists based in Turkey fear that if they are seen to speak up, their organisations will be shut down and their employees either deported or persecuted. 

WILPF stands in solidarity with Syrian women and civilians

The military incursion led by Turkey is unlawful under international law. WILPF stands strong beside Syrian women and civilians at large who are enduring the horrific humanitarian repercussions as a result of the invasion. We remain deeply alarmed by the mass waves of displacement that are leaving more than hundreds of thousands without homes, protection, or access to basic services. We also express our unyielding support to Syrian civil society activists, particularly Syrian women leaders and peacebuilders, who have been for many years tirelessly working towards peace, equality, and justice across the country.

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WILPF International Secretariat

WILPF International Secretariat, with offices in Geneva and New York, liaises with the International Board and the National Sections and Groups for the implementation of WILPF International Programme, resolutions and policies as adopted by the International Congress. Under the direction of the Secretary-General, the Secretariat also provides support in areas of advocacy, communications, and financial operations.

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

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WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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