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Syria-Bosnia Feminist Solidary Dialogue 2.0

On 9 July in a conference room in a hotel that once was a target of shelling sits a group of Bosnian and Syrian women activists. They are eagerly discussing peace activism. Invited by WILPF and the LSE, they have come together for three days to learn from each other’s experience in dealing with conflict and feminist activism – and ultimately finding solutions for their paths forward.

Image credit: WILPF
WILPF International Secretariat
2 September 2019

In Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the ghosts of the past still haunt the city. Bullet holes riddled high-rise buildings; smashed up pavements and knocked-down palaces are an everyday reminder of past wounds.

On 9 July in a conference room in a hotel that once was a target of shelling, in a city besieged for 1,425 days by the Army of Republika Srpska sits a group of Bosnian and Syrian women activists. They are eagerly discussing peace activism. Invited by WILPF and The London School of Economics and Political Sciences Centre for Women, Peace and Security (LSE), they have come together for three days to learn from each other’s experience in dealing with conflict and feminist activism – and ultimately finding solutions for their paths forward. 

Present in the room are activists, academics and representatives of feminist and women’s rights groups and political movements from Syria, BiH, Kosovo, and Croatia as well as international experts in the law, political economy and political campaigning.

Changing contexts

The three-day convening is the latest of WILPF’s path-breaking ‘Feminist Solidarity Dialogues’ and it is the second time such a dialogue takes place between women activists from Syria and BiH.

The first took place in February 2014 and covered topics like peace negotiations, women’s participation in peace-making and peace-building, and gender-based violence and justice. 

While the first dialogue was a success, the contexts in both countries have changed considerably since then. 

Today, BiH has neither advanced in terms of dealing with war-time past nor has it improved access to social and economic rights – both essential for the recovery of a war-torn society and for the maintaining and strengthening of peace.

As for Syria, the conflict has dramatically worsened and the needs of Syrians have changed significantly; topics such as how can women co-ordinate to find the missing, the forcibly disappeared and detained loved-ones, how can they highlight the gendered impact of crimes and hold perpetrators to account, and how can they work to move towards both peace and greater equality have been added to the agenda.

Women’s missing access to political participation

Madeleine Rees, WILPF’s Secretary-General, while speaking
Madeleine Rees, WILPF’s Secretary-General (photo credits: Sanja Vrzic)

While the Syrian activists in 2014 had a hope that they could have an influence on the peace agenda, it is clear today that despite great efforts, their access and influence remained limited. Women are too often excluded from the conversation and have been left out of political processes all around the world, and Syria is no exception.

As Madeleine Rees, WILPF’s Secretary-General, a lawyer and staunch feminist, stated at the beginning of the dialogue, the problem with peace in Bosnia and other former Yugoslavia countries is that it was done without women. “A better metaphor than a glass ceiling,” she said, “would be a membrane, we need to break the membrane.” Emphasising to the Syrian activists that women participation is imperative to achieving a genuine and sustainable peace.

The importance of unity

One of the big questions that emerged early on in the conversations was how to embrace differences as feminists and activists and find strength in unity.

Goran Bubalo a Bosnian activist talked from his experience of heading a network of 180 civil society organisations. He said that sometimes we as activists focus so much on our differences that we forget our shared struggle; we forget our mission and our message. His main advice to the Syrian activists was to put aside small differences and speak with a single unified voice for stronger impact.   

Sophie Walker, the founding leader of the Women’s Equality Party in the United Kingdom, emphasised the importance of organising. “We need to speak with one voice. We have to embrace each other’s differences to find common ground. This will mean learning to get comfortable with what sometimes feels uncomfortable. But we need a clear mission statement. Because the strength of our resistance is in our linked arms.” 

The need to unite was made all the more apparent after a clear-sighted intervention from Salma Kahaleh, Executive Director of Dawlaty. “We’re dealing with this idea that the problem is with ‘our men’. We see an expert white man, after an expert white man who are coming in to solve the problem of these ‘natives’ who are not including their women.” These so called experts in peace and reconstruction are all too often reluctant to push for women inclusion or challenge what they see as the prejudices of the communities they are attempting to help bring to peace. “It’s not just about fighting to be included at the table, it’s about the way the international community manages peace processes, which reinforces racialised and sectarian forces. So it’s about how we work together to find alternative models for peace processes,” Salma added.

Dima Moussa from the Syrian Women’s Political Movement emphasised that when women speak out, everything is political. She said: “Women are feminists by instinct and we need to help each other.” She also stressed the importance of the media and how Syrian activists should engage with it in a more effective way. 

The missing, the returnees and reparations 

In parallel workshops on ‘missing persons’ and ‘the return process’, the participants went into a conversation on the lessons to be learned from the Bosnian experience. 

During these workshops, the legal experts in the room provided input and shared knowledge on the international law and relevant mechanisms, while Bosnian activists told how similar mechanisms were utilised in their experience, whether they had been beneficial, and what should be avoided. 

Reparations were also discussed extensively in the context of transitional justice, to answer questions on who should benefit from it, who should fund it, and how it can and should be calculated, with examples from limited reparations that had been provided in BiH thus far and elsewhere.  

Feminist political economy

Jacqui True, Professor of International Relations and Director of Monash University’s Centre for Gender, Peace and Security, provided the opening discussion to a session on neoliberal approaches to peacebuilding, in which the participants discussed how feminist political economy can be used to advance our understanding of what needs to be done for a society in transition. 

Nela Porobic, WILPF’s Coordinator of ‘Women Organising for Change in Bosnia’ project, brought forward the Bosnian experience and analysis, and highlighted the impact of neoliberal approaches to peacebuilding on society and women’s rights in Bosnia today. The Syrian activists raised excellent questions on privatisation, neoliberalism, crony capitalism, and sanctions – issues that Syria is currently and will continue to be experiencing with the regime in power. 

Moving forward

 After  thorough discussion about the peace process, feminism and international law, the rebuilding of society, reconstruction and reparation, the Syrian participants walked out into streets that only twenty five years ago were raked by bullets and bombs. It was clear that the testimony of their Bosnian counterparts had offered both encouragement and chastening lessons about how to move forward, organise effectively, and keep solidarity at the heart of their everyday work.

An upcoming comprehensive report of the three day conference will be published during Autumn 2019. Watch this space for updates.

Finding Solutions through Feminist Solidarity Dialogues

Since the beginning of time, women have come together across borders and territories to share experiences and knowledge. That is hardly any news, but what makes WILPF’s feminist solidarity dialogues unique is that WILPF through the years has developed and fine-adjusted the framework around these dialogues.

A feminist solidarity dialogue takes place in a safe space and at the heart of the dialogue are the participants, their various experiences, knowledge and needs. The fundamental vision behind WILPF’s feminist solidarity dialogues is that those affected by the situations that the dialogue is centrered around collectively have the experiences and knowledge to create the solutions to the defined problems.

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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. 

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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