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Women’s Rights in Conflicts: from Bosnia to Syria

Photograph used by the Women's International League for Peace & Freedom in advance of Geneva II.
Photograph used by the Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom in advance of Geneva II.

After a long wait of 20 years, Hatidza Mehmedovic feels relaxed. Two months ago Mehmedovic, one of the many Bosnian women who carry scars of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, could finally find and bury the bones of her son. With the help of the International Commission of Missing Persons, she was able to take the murderers of her husband and son to The Hague.

Between February 9 and February 15, Sarajevo hosted intense discussions as to whether the Syrian women should participate in the third round of negotiations of the United Nations-backed international peace conference on the future of Syria, known as Geneva II. The debate reached its climax when a group of Syrian women proposed that they should attend the talks as a third ‘independent’ party, with a mission to seek guarantees for women’s rights.

The initiative did not have many supporters. UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi turned it down on the pretext that it never happened before in any former peace talks. Civil society organizations rejected the notion of neutrality and vociferously advocated that women should unite with the opposition against the regime.

Owing to the tragic similarities between Bosnia and Syria, Sarajevo was aptly suited as the venue for deliberations on the importance of transitional justice and the participation of women in any peace agreements. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) brought together 70 women from Bosnia and Syria for this heart-to-heart talk.

The conference, ‘Women Organizing for Change in Bosnia and Syria’ discussed female participation in peace talks. Besides sharing exchanging views about conflict and post-conflict scenarios, Syrian and Bosnian women were united in their pain and fear. WILPF Secretary General Madeleine Rees said: “Excluding the Syrian women from the peace process is a violation of human rights. Unfortunately, the Syrian female folk is voiceless now, and those responsible for conflict are being heard only.”

At one point Marcell Shehwaro, a Syrian activist, quipped, “Which peace are we talking about here! It’s really unimaginable to believe in peace when you see the pain of Syrian women. I believe I will choose to carry weapons and fight Assad if peace means to forgive the criminals who killed our loved ones.”

Taking a more pragmatic view of the situation, another Syrian speaker Mezna Durid, said: “We are tired of war in Syria. We want to live and save our people. We do believe that none except women can achieve peace. I will happily join if I can save lives.”

The situation in Bosnia was quite similar with regards to women’s suffering when peace talks were held near Dayton, Ohio, USA in 1995. There were no female representatives on board during the peace talks that put an end to the three and a half year Bosnian War. Burning issues like sexual violence against women and children was not even remotely touched upon. The Dayton Agreement authorized Bosnia and Herzegovina to investigate human rights abuses but the process could not deliver. A most obvious reason is that Bosnian women were not organized then. Their real work started after the agreement in 1996. It took them two decades to reach the place they are at now regarding human rights abuses against women.

The same is happening at now at Geneva II. Again we see women excluded. Syrian women’s attendance is kept as decoration on both the opposition and the government sides.

But Syrian women’s situation is different than that of Bosnian women’s in 1995. With plenty of civil society organizations, Syrian women are more capable of impacting the talks, even if not allowed to participate. The new generation of Syrian women has a sizable number of experts and activists in its ranks.

Nawal Yazeji, head of the Syrian Women’s League questions the international community’s seriousness about Syria’s worsening situation. “We can neither get visas from Switzerland to monitor the talks, nor can we get invited there. UN’s Brahimi said it clearly that this [women participating in peace talks] is not a feasible idea. Again, they want us to get out of any peace agreement. But we’ll keep fighting for it.”

Women are being asked to wait. For the world, it seems too early to take women fully on board in negotiating peace agreement.

The Bosnian women spoke about the importance of transitional justice, and how it plays a major role in creating conducive environments for the next generation. It took unfathomable courage to take the criminals to The Hague and lodge complaints against the United Nations for failure to protect them against the Serbs.

The same justice is what Syrian women are seeking. Justice of law! No punishment can return the loved ones but justice can lessen some pain. Many Syrian’s mothers like Mehmedovic will find some reprieve.

In Syria, many women have been forced to participate in the war – through rape and through inclusion in some military operations. They deserve a place at the negotiation table.

In the light of their experiences, Bosnian women share their Syrian sisters’ desire to not wait 20 years to get their rights. They have sacrificed enough to deserve space in the peacemaking process. It is shocking to realize that the UN’s top diplomats are not ready for this. Without the full support of the international community, the rights of women in transitional phase cannot be achieved.

Nura Begović, a member of the association Women of Srebrenica, says, “Dayton did not offer us anything. We, as women, had to fight hard to get our rights, which took us a very long time. Syrian women shouldn’t stop fighting for their right to participate in the peace talks.” She emphasized, “If Syrian women are ignored now, they won’t ever get anything in future. This will be a repeat of the misery that we live today.”

A victim of Serbrenica massacre, Begović works with Serb women for an integrated, pluralistic society. “I lost my husband and son in the massacre. My goal is to achieve a healthy society where people can live peacefully together.”

Aloosh Devrim is a young Syrian social media activist whose family struggled against Hafiz Al-Assad’s rule and policies. She has traveled to the Americas, Europe, and Middle East for work.

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