Washington, DC 202.408.9450 © 2012 Women's Democracy Network. All rights reserved.
Syrian Women Acquire Skills to Become Effective Negotiators
Istanbul, Turkey– As reports in Arab Spring countries continue to surface on the rollback of women’s rights in the post-revolution environment, the women of Syria are seeking to reverse this trend in their country. With events in Syria rapidly unfolding, and as the representative opposition movement – the Syrian National Coalition – gains legitimacy, ensuring women’s participation in the transitional processes is critical.
“The time is now. We must support a circle of women and women must have a more active role. We have to be ready. We have to work,” stated a Women’s Democracy Network (WDN) member and program participant who lives in Damascus.
To strengthen the skills of Syrian women to actively participate as negotiators in future peace building efforts, WDN, in coordination with the International Republican Institute, hosted a three-day workshop in Istanbul, Turkey. Syrian women representing various leading opposition movements came together to discuss women’s current roles within these movements, identify avenues for inclusion in negotiation processes and find common ground on their vision for the status of women in a post-conflict Syria. Participants focused on coalition building, mediation and negotiation skills through interactive exercises including role-play mock mediation and cease-fire negotiations.
The workshop was led by Monica McWilliams, a renowned international leader and founder of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, which played an instrumental role in the multiparty negotiations that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. She was joined by Mary McWilliams, a mediation expert who organized and trained a coalition of multi-party women following the ceasefire in Northern Ireland; and Catherine Turner, a lecturer and mediator in alternative dispute resolution at the Association of Mediation Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s peace process resonated with the Syria women and the current state of their country. The workshop leaders shared their personal experiences during the Northern Ireland peace processes, which provided participants with a unique opportunity to learn first-hand what it took to secure women’s participation at those negotiating tables.
“I cannot believe how relatable the Irish experience is to Syria; if they did it, we can do it,” said a program participant.
During the workshop on coalition building, participants were asked to identify their strengths and discuss how they are leaders within their organizations, which led to a larger discussion on what it means to be a leader in Syria.
“We fear calling ourselves leaders because we live in a country where leaders are dictators and we do not want the association of leadership,” said another program participant.
Monica McWilliams responded, “It is important to become the role model; it’s your moment to show that leadership can be defined differently.”
Mary McWilliams added, “As leaders, you need to recognize the skills of those surrounding you in order to benefit from collectively utilizing everyone’s strengths at the table when building a support network or coalition.”
During the session on conflict styles and mediation, Turner guided participants through an interactive role playing activity that assigned each participant a conflicting personality and opinion regarding the Syrian conflict. The activity displayed real issues, tension and difficulties of participating in a mediation process when viewpoints and convictions are so diverse.
“This type of conflict is a real situation in Syria. This taught me a lot as I now see the most important thing to remember is the need for ultimate patience and that you must really think before you speak,” said a program participant.
As a result of the workshop, participants were able to set aside differing political stances and unite on the principle of promoting the full and equal inclusion of women in building a free and democratic Syria. These principles were further embodied in a letter drafted jointly by the participants and delivered to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit in Belfast, Ireland. Within the letter, the women agreed upon the following set of principles to guide a transitional Syria:
1. The process that establishes a future Syria should include all people in Syria, including
the equal participation of women;
2. The process should represent the diverse cultural, political, social and gender make-up of
the Syrian people;
3. The process should respect all human rights, especially women’s rights;
4. The process should be independent, determined by and accountable to the people of
5. The process should be inclusive of 50 percent women and be open and transparent to
civic society organizations.
The workshop was funded by the United States Agency for International Development Global Women’s Leadership Fund. The fund focuses on increasing meaningful representation of women in track one (official) negotiations conducted by official representatives of a state; and track two (unofficial) negotiations between non-state actors, civil society members, academics and political activists.