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Women’s Advisory Board in Geneva Sparks Controversy

After being repeatedly accused of sidelining the role and demands of Syrian women at the negotiation table in Geneva, the U.N. established the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board to consult with Staffan de Mistura. But the board’s makeup has caused outrage in some sections of Syrian civil society.

Written by Zuhour Mahmoud Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Syrian women wait outside a bakery shop to buy bread in Maaret Misreen, near Idlib, on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012. AP/Muhammed Muheisen

While some view the formation of the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board as a breakthrough for Syria’s women, who have largely been marginalized in the Geneva peace process, prominent members of Syrian civil society have condemned the U.N.-created group, saying it fails to accurately represent most Syrian woman.

Established in early February by U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura, the Syrian Women’s Advisory board consists of 12 independent representatives of civil society. The board’s mission is to relay the concerns and demands of Syrian women to the negotiators in Geneva, and to consult directly with de Mistura as the talks evolve.

Marcell Shehwaro, a Syrian activist and the executive director of Kesh Malek, a Syrian civil society group that promotes human rights and access to education, believes the problem lay in the establishment of the advisory board – as opposed to including Syrian women directly in the negotiation process.

“Why – in a very political situation – do Syrian women get an advisory position? Why are they not at the table?” she asked. “It would be like us demanding to have seats in the parliament, and instead getting an office job in the parliament building.”

A U.N. press release issued at the time of the board’s launch stated that its intention was to help Syrian women “articulate their concerns and ideas.” But female activists have questioned the selection process used to nominate the 12 members, particularly those who are pro-Assad.

While the board includes well-known opposition figures such as Majdoline Hasan, a human rights lawyer arrested by Syrian security forces in 2012, it also includes government loyalists like Ansaf Ahmad, a university professor and member of the Baath party – Syria’s ruling political party – and Diana Jabbour, the director of Syria’s state-run television.

“We cannot accept that someone who is a supporter or a sympathizer of President Bashar al-Assad would advise anyone on human rights,” said Shehwaro. “It would be the same if someone from al-Nusra Front was advising on issues of human rights.”

Shehwaro also believes the board members are detached from the reality on the ground.

“The members of the board are privileged. They are untouched and unphased by the atrocities happening on the ground,” she said. “They do not have the privilege to tell Syrian women that they represent them.”

Shehwaro accused members of the board of “simplifications and shallowness.”

Soon after the announcement of its creation, the Syrian Feminist Lobby – a network of Syrian political and social activists working to promote the inclusion of women in the political process – released a statement rejecting the advisory board’s representation of Syrian women, stating that the board’s views express only the personal opinions of its members.

“The problem in the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board is that three years’ worth of work and advocacy has gone to waste,” said Oula Ramadan, a long-time activist, pointing to the board’s misrepresentation of Syrian women and their demands.

Both Ramadan and Shehwaro believe there are other candidates who are better suited to represent the aspirations of Syrian women. “There are no fewer than a hundred women currently working in leading organizations that are bringing about real change, all independently,” said Ramadan.

“Today, Syrian women are becoming the sole providers in their communities,” said Shehwaro. “If we were to choose representatives, we would choose the brave heroines in Maarat al-Numan who are expelling al-Nusra Front. This bravery needs to be recognized.”

Hanan Halimah, an activist and a representative of the Osos organization in besieged Eastern Ghouta – an NGO aimed at supporting civil society initiatives – said that although a female presence in the talks was absolutely necessary, the board’s selection process was neither clear nor fair to female Syrian activists.

“There should have been more deliberation among organizations working on the Syrian issue, especially women’s organizations,” she said. “And there should have been clearer communication between the negotiation committees and these organizations.”

During a press conference in late March, the advisory board presented a list of its most pressing demands, stressing key humanitarian issues such as the delivery of aid and the release of detainees, as well as an inquiry into the fate of the thousands of disappeared people on all sides of the conflict.

But the board’s final demand fueled controversy even further, ordering an immediate end to economic sanctions imposed on the Syrian government, claiming they are blocking access to food, medicine and the necessary means for survival.

The members skipped over what many activists and opposition groups consider to be key issues, such as government violations of the temporary cease-fire in rebel-held areas such as Idlib and its hindrance of aid deliveries into besieged areas like Daraya and Duma.

“If consulted, Syrian women would definitely not demand the lifting of sanctions on the Assad government. They would demand the lifting of sieges, and not just aid deliveries. They would demand a real cease-fire, not one that excludes areas like Daraya and Idlib,” said Shehwaro.

Activists have accused the board’s members of being overly diplomatic in their demands. “It is true that people are calling for a cease-fire, but these people are also calling for justice, for accountability, and most of all for Bashar al-Assad to step down,” Ramadan added.

“Which one of these members raised any of these demands?” asked Ramadan. “Not one of them. Which one of these members mentioned any of the popular demands of the people who participated in the uprising?”

Halimah and other activists are also outraged over what they view as the U.N.’s disregard for recommendations put forward by civil society organizations. “We heard promises but they were not delivered. We repeatedly suggested that the committee talk to women inside Syria but our recommendations were ignored.”

While the extent of the board’s influence on the proceedings in Geneva is still unknown, activists such as Ramadan and Shehwaro are sure a mass rejection of the board could convince de Mistura to rethink his decision.

“The damage done by the advisory board is internal, and sooner or later the U.N. will hear us and reconsider its move,” said Shehwaro. “The real damage lies within Syrian civil society; whether we agree with it or not, our opponents will use this board against us.”

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