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Strategies for Change: Iraqi and Syrian Women’s Rights Activists Join in Istanbul Conference

18 February 2015

In January 2015, WILPF and Madre brought women’s rights activists and members of grassroots organisations from Syria and Iraq together in Istanbul to share their experiences and identify strategies for defending women’s rights in conflict and responding to human rights violations, including sexual violence.

Participants share experiences combating sexual and gender based violence in Iraq and Syria.
Participants share experiences combating sexual and gender based violence in Iraq and Syria.

Sponsored by the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI), the conference was a unique opportunity to learn from grassroots activists working on women’s rights in Iraq and Syria. Many of them continue to work on the ground in conflict affected areas, including those controlled by the self-defined Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Those participants travelling from ISIL controlled areas had to go through immense danger in order to reach the meeting and share their experiences.

Over three days, participants collaborated to detail the roots causes of violence against women and identify patterns of the violence perpetrated by government forces, militias, and by ISIL. In this process, participants shared their existing best practices and discussed how organisations could work to increase their security, networks, and their ability to counter all forms of gender based violence.


The conference ended with participants identifying existing gaps in responses to threats they face in conflict and voicing strong recommendations for addressing sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) in both Iraq and Syria.

  • Healthcare

Increase access to medical and psychosocial services for women and survivors of violence. This entails ensuring both continued support for existing services and connecting survivors with services through safe referral networks and programmes that ensure access for women in spite of limited mobility. Expert healthcare providers brought attention to the lack of funding that has resulted in the closure of operating hospitals leaving civilian populations with no access to healthcare that have a severely disproportionate impact on women.

  • International Advocacy

Consolidate joint efforts with international organisations to enhance the participation of local organisations in international projects and international human rights mechanisms. Connecting international organisations to grassroots organisations is necessary in order to guide programming and advocacy as close to existing needs as possible. Local knowledge should also be channelled into holistic shadow reports to the CEDAW committee, UPR reports to the Human Rights Council, and other treaty body reporting mechanisms in order to best inform the international community of the needs and realities on the ground.

  • National Advocacy

Exert pressure on governments to amend national discriminatory laws and introduce new ones that hold perpetrators accountable and protect women from honour killings, harassment and stigmatisation.

  • Legal support

Provide technical support to bridge the gaps between national laws and international human rights standards. Such support would involve legal awareness programmes for all stakeholders, drafting adequate legal schemes that reform  current legal systems that discriminate against women, and working to implement existing laws.

  • Capacity-building

Conduct training for activists and organisations on sensitisation campaigns, psychosocial and healthcare support for survivors of SGBV, interviewing procedures, and documenting sexual violence crimes.

  • Enhancing Networking

Establish connections and networks among organisations addressing women’s needs both at the local and regional (between Syria and Iraq) levels, particularly in the documentation of SGBV.

  • Empowerment

Put in place empowerment strategies that are two-fold by ensuring both the rehabilitation of survivors of SGBV through economic, psychosocial and social reintegration programming, and strengthening the ability of women’s rights groups to advocate women’s rights issues including the needs of survivors.

  • Media Reform

Provide technical, financial and logistical support for programmes targeted on media reform that challenge the presentation of women as victims and improve the media coverage of women’s rights. This can be accomplished through seeking laws prohibiting satellite channels that depict violations of women, media programming that brings attention to the abuse of women (particularly by armed groups) and educates  on the use of SGBV, and workshops on reporting on SGBV for media professionals.

Next Steps

The results of the conference will be published in a series of outcome documents. WILPF will also further the recommendations developed during the conference at the NGO Committee on the Status of Women in March and by continuing to engage in the United Nations Human Rights Council, including the forthcoming report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.

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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. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

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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