Introduction: The celebration of International Women’s Day falls within a discussion on the role of women in societies worldwide, on their achievements, and on the protection they deserve, including in the context of a conflict.
- A brief history of International Women’s Day
Each year, on 8 March, International Women’s Day celebrates women’s achievements in social, economic, cultural and political areas.
The first commemoration of a Woman’s Day was organised across the United States in 1909, at a time when women fought for their rights to vote and equal rights.Women such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Leonora O’Reilly addressed the crowd, explaining their demands.
In 1910, during a meeting of the Socialist International in Copenhagen, Luise Ziets and Clara Zetkin, two German advocates for women’s rights, suggested the establishment of an International Woman’s Day. Thus, in 1911, the first International Woman’s Day was held, and aimed at circulating the idea of equal rights and the demand regarding the right to vote. Celebrations took place in cities such as New York, Boston, Vienna or Berlin, and gathered more than one million women and men. The popularity of the celebration later on spread around Europe and as far as Russia, where, on the eve of the Revolution, a massive demonstration, made up of women for the most part, took place to protest against harsh living conditions.
On the occasion of the International Women’s Year, the United Nations consecrated the International Women’s Day in 1975 and two years later adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace. It is now celebrated in more than 100 countries.
- CEDAW and other treaties in favour of women’s rights
The international community later on affirmed its commitment to promoting gender equality, and entered into a series of agreements to this aim. The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the UN General Assembly, defines a discrimination against women as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex […] in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field,” and establishes an agenda in order to fight it and ensure that women fully enjoy the rights proclaimed. The treaty is often referred to as an international bill of rights for women.
In 1995, the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women concluded with the Beijing Declaration reaffirming the governments’ commitment to equal rights, and a Platform for Action proclaiming women’s rights as human rights and planning specific actions to implement them.
In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously agreed to merge four UN entities dedicated to gender equality and created UN Women, the agency working for the empowerment of women.
- Women in War
Women are particularly vulnerable in situations of conflict. They are victims of sexual violence, forced to flee, facing extreme poverty and deprived of healthcare.
In 2000, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). Not only did the resolution recognise the particular impact of war on women, especially victims of sexual violence and of its aftermath. The resolution also highlighted the need to increase women’s participation in peace processes to improve their effectiveness. The landmark resolution was acclaimed by women activists, and was implemented in several ways. Thus, for instance, since the adoption of the resolution:
- The International Criminal Court addressed sexual violence;
- The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women adopted General Recommendation 30 on women in conflict prevention, conflict and post-conflict situations, providing states who have signed the CEDAW with concrete measures to ensure women’s rights are protected before, during and after conflict;
- More women are part of peace processes.
However, the impact of war on women remains considerable, and their participation in peace processes marginal.
The impact of war on Syrian women
Syrian women have suffered a heavy toll from the war. In its 15th report published on 6 March 2018, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic noted that “Arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, and sexual and gender-based violence have all been used against thousands of persons in detention.” A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch already exposed that women were “arbitrarily arrested and detained, physically abused, harassed, and tortured during Syria’s conflict by government forces, pro-government militias, and armed groups opposed to the government”, and the situation since then has made more victims by day. Regardless of their religion, ethnicity or their role in the conflict, women experiment violence specifically because of their gender. In its 2017 Report on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, the UN Secretary General noted, for the third year running, that sexual violence was used by “parties to the Syrian conflict as a systematic tactic of warfare, terrorism and torture”.
- Arbitrary detention and sexual violence in detention by the Syrian regime
Since the early stages of the conflict, women have engaged in peaceful activism. The Syrian government then started campaigns of arbitrary detentions targeting female activists. Later on, the Syrian government also engaged in a campaign of arbitrary detention of women to put pressure on opposition fighters, arresting them at check points or raiding their homes.
The conditions of their detention are alarming. The recourse to sexual violence in detention centres run by intelligence agencies is widespread and takes various forms, from degrading body searches to rape and forced witnessing of rape.
The political use of sexual violence by the regime is organised and takes into account the social and cultural environment of the Syrian society. Even when they are released, the stigma of what they have or supposedly have endured causes a profound humiliation to the women and their relatives. Consequently, the victims are often rejected by their family, sometimes even killed. Families, themselves, are rejected by the community, creating a deep impact on the Syrian society as a whole.
- Sexual and gender-based violence committed by ISIS
- Genocidal sexual violence against the Yazidi community
Considered as “devil-worshippers” by the Islamic State, the Yazidi community was targeted for their belief in a campaign that amounted, according to the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, to a genocide, an international crime defined by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as a range of acts, from harming to killing “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”. Women and men were treated differently, but the combination of both treatment, with the intent to destroy the group, is what amounts to the crime of genocide.
The campaign organised by the Islamic State against Yazidis was meticulously planned: when ISIS members invaded a Yazidi village, men and adolescent boys were separated from women and children, and targeted for execution.
Women, on the other hand, faced sexual violence in various forms, including rape and sexual enslavement, in “an assault on the victim, and on the existence, identity, and cohesiveness of the group.”
Survivors from the Yazidi community described for Syrians for Truth and Justice the journey they went through and the violence they suffered during their detention by ISIS. By all accounts, they suffered sexual and gendered-use violence because of their religion.
- Sexual and gender-based violence against other minorities
In their expansion, ISIS also committed violence against other minority and in particular against the women. The Assyrian Christian community was heavily affected. A survivor recounted to Syrians for Truth and Justice how she was kidnapped by ISIS in August 2014 and the captivity she went through for three years, recollecting precise events of sexual violence. 
- Use of women as bargaining chip by opposition groups and Syrian government
On every side of the conflict, exchanging civilians as part of deals has become common. Especially, the recourse to kidnapping women in order to gain weight in a negotiation has increased. Holding women captives seems to be part of a strategy when exchanging hostages or in exchange of food and aids. In a non-systemic and sometimes event secret way, all sides seem to have adopted the strategy, condemning women to spend months in jails suffering poor treatment.
- Refugee camps
The burden of war on women does not lighten when they leave the unsafe environment of their homeland and seek refuge in refugee camps.
When they get there, they face a high risk of sexual violence due to several factors, such as:
- a lack of privacy (in tents or in latrines),
- overcrowding and mixing of people who do not know each other,
- poverty and financial desperation,
- and lawlessness.
The perpetrators are not only among the male population living in the camps, but also among aid workers, who exploit the women in return for aid.
As a consequence, being aware of the risk, women are prevented from accessing services and humanitarian aid, aggravating even more their situation.
The war also shapes the economic role women are now expected to assert, as a consequence of the death of men. One of Syrians for Truth and Justice’s female reporter based in Damascus, an area controlled by the regime, explained the new role asserted by women in the Syrian society and the financial difficulties they are facing now that they tend to be the breadwinners of their family:
“Because of the circumstances of the war, many girls are the sole breadwinners of their families; they were forced to work in fields where women did not work before the war, in addition to accepting exploitative labor conditions, not to mention the significant increase in the percentage of girls whose marriage was delayed and the high incidence of divorce.”
Women face similar situations throughout Syria, regardless of the authority controlling their area. Another of our female reporters based in an autonomous-administration controlled area tells us:
“Women are doing a lot of work being in the field of education or even in the combat works because of the emigration of many young males.”
The active role of women in Syria’s society
Despite the disproportionate impact of the conflict on women, it would be erroneous to dismiss their powerful action and the role they assert in the society. They play an essential role in civil resistance and community organising.
- Women activists
From the early stages of the conflict, women took an essential part in activism. Some created organisations aimed at supporting women through displacements or encourage their participation in civil society, others are active on social media to depict the abuses committed by all parties to the conflict, and others protest the brutality of parties to the conflict by standing in the streets.
A Syrians for Truth and Justice reporter gives an account of the organisation demonstrated by women in Eastern Ghouta:
“In cooperation between several actors and some women in Eastern Ghouta, we were able to form an entity rather than an individual response to the violation, this entity could gain support from the vice-Chairman of the Interim Government and the Council of Damascus countryside to achieve some of the rights of women at all levels.”
- In media and documentation
Women take an active part in informing the public on the events taking place in Syria, often taking enormous risks. Their essential role in this field includes creating newspapers, writing and forming women to journalism.
Female reporters contribute importantly to Syrians for Truth and Justice’s work. Two of them currently give account of the events taking place in Eastern Ghouta and part of Northern Syria.
- Nurses and doctors
In a strategy to pressure the community, it appears that the Syrian regimes has deliberately started targeting health centres, that became highly risky places. Despite the risk, women continue to provide health services to civilians, as nurses and doctors.
Women’s experience of war is significantly impactful, for them as individuals, but also for the society. It is essential to address the violence they are victims of because of their gender, and to situate this type of violence in the broader context of the historical condition of women in the structure of the society. It is also imperative, in the light of the failing peace process that has been taking place for years in the Syrian context, to implement their right to participate, which has proven to bring better outcomes to peace negotiations and post-conflict rebuilding.
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 They Forced me to do Everything ! Horrifying Testimonies of Yazidi Survivors Escaped Recently from ISIS Grip. Syrians for Truth and Justice, 21 January 2018. https://stj-sy.com/en/view/397; Four Years of Darkness: Testimony of Widad Dawood the Yazidi Survivor from Islamic State-ISIS Grip. Syrians for Truth and Justice, 21 January 2018.