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March 4, 2016

Responding To: Human Security in the Face of Violent Extremism

Putting Women First in Syria

John Arterbury

As the Syrian civil war creeps into its fifth devastating year, most observers only have a passive awareness at best of the gender-based violence permeating it. While shocking headlines about the Islamic State’s grotesque practice of sexual slavery has elevated awareness of the plight of women in some respects, much illumination remains to be done on the greater plight of women across Syria. Indeed, some of the most egregious violations have been committed by the Syrian government at the institutional level, as a recent United Nations Human Rights Council investigation discovered. Women are subject to rape and sexual harassment in the government’s myriad detention facilities, and sexualized threats against the female relations of male detainees remain depressingly routine.

As such, it’s readily evident that sexualized violence against women isn’t limited to non-state actors, but repressive governments are often guilty of committing gender-based violence as well. Poor governance, corruption, and civil conflict all contribute to the continued perpetration gender-based violence, and a lack of gender equity in civil societies the world over all mean that these injustices will continue unless dramatic changes are made.

The efforts of courageous individuals like Special Representative Zainab Hawa Bangura, as well as countless nameless others, means that there is hope. We’ve seen it time and again, whether in combatting sexualized violence in West Africa or advocating for women’s rights in the chaotic years following the Arab Spring. The collapse of civil society and the depredations of war in Syria has left women at the helm of many areas in rebel-held Syria, pioneering new leadership roles and staking out a greater claim in society. But for others, the consequences of war have been darker, as is the case of Razan Zeitouneh, a Syrian political activist who vanished along with three others in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus in late 2013 and remains missing.

Yet for all the public outrage surrounding gender-based violence, little has been done to further integrate women into the highest levels of global power. Women are notably absent from the executive levels of the Syrian peace talks, but simply changing this gender arithmetic could dramatically improve peace prospects. Such an endeavor would be but one small step in the right direction. Recognizing the equal role that women play and deserve means putting women at the forefront of health, development, and security policies worldwide. Any solution to curbing gender-based violence demands a holistic approach that recognizes the intrinsic complexity of human security and the inherent equality of women—and doing so means putting women first.

John Arterbury is a M.A. candidate in the Security Studies program at Georgetown University.

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