On Tuesday 30th November 2021, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women, Peace and Security (APPG-WPS) hosted an event in collaboration with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom titled “Reflections on Syria: Women’s Political Participation”, chaired by Baroness Fiona Hodgson, Co-chair of the APPG-WPS. The event allowed us to discuss the gendered impacts that conflict, COVID-19, and aid cuts, have had on Syrian women’s participation, and how the international community, including the UK Government, can better support Syrian activists, women human rights defenders, and women rights and civil society organisations.
The event heard from: Rola Al-Masri, Middle East and North Africa Manager at Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Su’ad Jarbawi, Middle East and North Africa Regional Vice President at the International Rescue Committee and Lubna Kanawati, Director at Women Now for Development.
Rola al-Masri began by discussing what women’s political participation at the highest-level in Syria has looked like, and how including women in high-level decision-making spaces requires structural changes to the societal frameworks that women are operating in. Rola noted that Syrian women have long been involved in feminist movements at the local level that challenge patriarchal norms and structures, but these are not seen as political acts as women’s involvement in the conflict has consistently been depoliticised. Rola concluded that it is important for the international community, including donors, to expand their perception and understanding of what political participation looks like so that they can build on the essential work that Syrian women are already doing at the grassroots level.
We also heard from Su’ad Jarbawi who provided a summary of the current dire economic and social situation in Syria. She stated that funding to the IRC in Syria has dropped by 75% as a result of aid cuts and outlined the direct impact of this including the risk of closure to health facilities, economic support centres, and safe spaces for women, and the reduction of reproductive health services for women and girls. Su’ad emphasised that this funding cut has a negative impact on relationships that have been built over time with local women-led organisations, which creates a lack of trust, and is detrimental to the global movement aiming to decolonise the aid agenda.
Finally, we heard from Lubna Kanawati about the direct experiences of aid cuts from the perspective of civil society. Lubna outlined that funding cuts to Women Now for Development programmes have led to increased labour and management burdens on Syrian women who are trying to secure funding through multiple different avenues. This has also meant that programmes are having to be shifted multiple times to meet donors reporting requests. Lubna also highlighted that funding has been shifting towards Covid-19 response in a way that is gender-exclusive and dismisses the value of female health care workers at the frontlines of the pandemic response. Lubna outlined multiple recommendations for the international community, including the need to expand how women’s participation is viewed and funded to include all levels of decision making within every sector.
In the Q&A session, speakers were asked various questions about what mistakes have been made in Syria, what the most important actions the UK Government must undertake are, and how the international community can learn from what happened in Afghanistan earlier this year. The speakers reflected on the need for the UK Government to engage in rebuilding trust with women-led organisations in Syria, particularly after the aid cuts and in light of the National Action Plan due to be released in 2023. They noted that meaningful consultations with women’s rights activists and young women in Syria is needed to understand the comprehensive needs that exist, and that this channel of communication must be consistently open as priorities and needs continue to change over time. This event overall provided an excellent opportunity to learn and reflect on women’s political participation in Syria.