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Syrian Women´s Rights Civil Society Conference
Combatting violence against women as a barrier to women’s participation in decision-making and peace-building

Statement Birgit Van Hout

UN Human Rights (OHCHR) Regional Representative for Europe

9 December 2021

Distinguished EU Ambassador for Gender and Diversity, Distinguished UN Special Envoy for Syria, Dear representatives of the EuroMed Feminist Initiative, Dear participants,

First of all, I would like to thank the organizers of today’s conference for inviting the UN Human Rights Office. This conference is an opportunity for all of us to examine our collective responsibility to address the gender-based violence that is holding back the women and girls of Syria.

As we all know, the Syrian people continue to suffer numerous violations of their human rights. The situation is particularly precarious for women, though. Women and girls all over Syria are subjected to physical violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, as well as early and forced marriage. Limited access to quality health services and legal support further marginalizes those who survive gender-based violence.

Human rights and humanitarian actors in the country have observed sustained and, in many cases, increased levels of gender-based violence. Indeed, the prolonged humanitarian crisis, the economy’s rapid deterioration, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic have all contributed to exacerbating violence against women and girls.

These violations are compounded by a systemic denial of girls’ right to education, restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, fear of displacement, and labor exploitation. Divorced and widowed women are not only exposed to heightened social policing, but also systematically deprived of inheritance and resource ownership.

In fact, every space that women and girls access, is marred by experiences of gender-based violence: homes, schools, workplaces, camps, markets, public spaces, distribution points for humanitarian assistance, the digital sphere.

Violence against women and girls is pervasive and a great barrier to women´s participation in decision-making and peacebuilding initiatives in Syria. Women in the political sphere and women human rights defenders are frequently silenced, belittled, harassed and targeted -- online and offline -- simply for demanding participation or because they are affiliated to a feminist or gender equality network or movement.

And when they are “enabled” to participate, their lack of financial resources often cripples their ability to do so in a meaningful, genuine and equal manner in decision-making, whether at local, national or international level.

Yet, women’s participation is not only a right, it also leads to better outcomes. Women’s participation prevents the adoption of discriminatory measures. It contributes to transforming the rigid gender norms and stereotypes that negatively impact their enjoyment of human rights. It is also essential for political transitions and peace processes to be sustainable.

The representation of women in political and public life furthermore tends to foster accountability, including gender-sensitive judicial proceedings, through which victims of violence can report the violence they suffer - inside and outside their homes - in a safe environment, free from stigma. It lowers the barriers for women to access legal advice, medical and psychosocial help, humanitarian or economic support.

This is why inclusion must be prioritized from the outset, and guaranteed through bold targets and practical and concrete mechanisms. We must pay more attention to the equal and meaningful participation of women in peace building. We should consistently analyse who is sitting at the peace negotiation table, not only to influence decisions that affect women’s lives, but also to contribute to small arms control and disarmament processes.

The UN Secretary General’s last report on women, peace and security (S/2021/827) and our High Commissioner’s report on the same topic (A/HRC/47/32) have demanded the prioritization of women’s participation in all their diversity, a dedicated space, and a stronger role for women organizations and women peacebuilders.

We are grateful to you, because the Common Agenda to combat Violence Against Women provides us with a renewed opportunity to engage with women’s rights defenders in Syria and it opens the door for a greater representation of women in the political sphere. Because only if we step up our efforts to enhance protection, participation, and to promote civic space, will we be able to respond adequately to the continued humanitarian crisis in Syria and be able to advance peace and security. Thank you.