The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and MADRE, in collaboration with partners from Iraq and Syria, convened the second Strategies for Change conference on 15-16 October 2015 in Istanbul, Turkey. This conference was a segment of a series of conferences that bring together grassroots women groups working across Syria and Iraq to engage with each other on addressing the crisis of sexual violence and related women’s human rights concerns in the context of the current conflicts.
The conference brought around 40 local Syrian and Iraqi women activists and representatives of local women’s organisations. Many of the activists operate in ISIL-controlled territories and other areas in Syria undergoing aerial bombardment, heavy fighting and movement restrictions, or in Iraq facing severe security threats, and have therefore undertaken significant risks in order to attend the conference.
Recent Developments in Iraq and Syria
Participants from Iraq and Syria have identified a series of developments and challenges in their respective countries since the first half of 2015, and discussed how these developments impact their work.
The legal backsliding in Iraq is menacing women’s peace activism
Iraqi participants described how the legislation in Iraq is regressing both its international and local obligations. For instance, although Iraq is amongst the advanced countries in the region in terms implementing the UNSCR 1325 and adopting the 1325 National Action Plan (NAP), six main pillars have been confidentially cut out and banned from implementation particularly those related to funding, amending legislation, and women empowerment. Iraqi participants also communicated how those returning to areas liberated from ISIL are witnessing ongoing human rights violations from security forces and militias, and that women and children are suffering the repercussions of the lack of medical personnel, equipment and infrastructure in those areas.
Syrian women inside and outside the homeland: divergent opportunities for the same shared struggle
Syrian participants shed the light on the constant decrease of women’s participation in public life since 2013, predominantly because of bombardment and military fighting, which hinders mobility. Certain extremist groups have also banned interaction between men and women, and blocked women from public life. Although the number of local women’s organisations has increased, participants pointed out that many organisations often lack prerequisites for orientation and coordination in order to be efficient.
Although women residing inside Syria have increased their capacities and networks, there is serious concern that this development will come to a halt due to the lack of mobility and shrinking space for local women CSOs. They will not have access to the support needed. As for the women activists residing outside the country, there is a quantum leap in terms of capacity and experience.
International organisations are too focused on women’s participation at the international level (on international negotiations and policies). This narrow focus on limits their ability to work with women at the local level. These two levels of organisations have very different priorities. It is necessary that we work to bridge the gap and communicate local women’s realities and concerns to the international level.
Building upon previous conference’s outcomes, this conference aimed at providing sustainable support and action plans for Iraqi and Syrian women groups. These groups agreed to continue developing recommendations about threats to Syrian and Iraqi women’s safety, peace and security. They also identified news areas that require international attention.
The recommendations will be built on a holistic analysis; they will respond to issues of sexual and gender-based violence; and therefore will also address healthcare, funding, empowerment, capacity building, networking, legal assistance, and media reform.