Since 2012, the Kurds and other minority groups in North and North-eastern Syria have managed to enjoy semi-autonomous status within the war-torn country. For much of that time and especially after the collapse of Daesh, the people in that region were able to enjoy some of the freedoms they had been deprived of for many years. Until just a week ago, Rojava was a home to a number of civil society movements including women’s rights groups that operated with relative freedom and security.
According to Shivan, an activist in Hasakeh, and WILPF’s own mapping report, civil society organisations in the area had managed to pressure local governments into issuing several articles and decrees improving and protecting women’s rights. Among those were measures criminalising underage marriage and polygamy, imposing 50% gender-quotas on local municipalities and general administrative organisations and establishing a women-only village where women who had lost everything could live, work and thrive.
Soon that could all be gone.
The quick turn of events has devastated local communities
Shivan, an activist in Hasakeh, spoke to WILPF of the dire situation of women and children displaced as a result of the Turkish offensive on the area.
“Everything happened all of a sudden with no warning. We had to put aside all our work on Women’s Empowerment programmes and focus on providing food and shelter to those affected.” Said Shivan from PEL-Civil Waves, an organisation working in Northern Syria with the goal of achieving an equal and democratic society.
This month President Trump announced the withdrawal of US forces that had been a crucial element in the uneasy balance of power in the region and within days Turkey invaded. Now with no one to protect them and a justifiable fear of ethnic cleansing by the Turkish forces, the Kurds had to turn to the regime in Damascus for help.
With the Syrian armed forces entering the area, this comes at a huge cost. The reinstatement of the authoritarian rule of the Syrian government will in all likelihood be devastating for activists and civil society groups. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been detained or forcibly disappeared by government forces. Many activists in Rojava have already fled the region for a fear of persecution.
“Years of building a genuine feminist movement and exceptional work towards an equal society are at a risk of total collapse,” Shivan said.
Since 2011, Syrian civilians have been paying the price for the wider world’s political rivalries. Men in Damascus, Washington, Moscow and Tehran have made decisions and women in Syria have been left to pick up the pieces of their ruined lives. Despite their continuous effort to resist tyranny and injustice in a highly militarised environment, it seems a dark new chapter in that book is about to be written.
“This is now fertile ground for the rebirth of ISIS and a return to the oppression of women,” a leading Syrian woman activist told WILPF.
Syrian human rights organisation and civil society groups are being harassed in Turkey
Turkey plays host to an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees and many Syrian organisations and civil society groups that operate in Northern Syria have their bases there. Although most of them categorically oppose the Turkish aggression on northern Syria, it is dangerous to voice their views. The Turkish government has with increasing regularity over the past years been harassing Syrian activists with raids on their offices and forcibly returning refugees back to Syria. In this article, we had to use pseudonyms as all the activists based in Turkey fear that if they are seen to speak up, their organisations will be shut down and their employees either deported or persecuted.
WILPF stands in solidarity with Syrian women and civilians
The military incursion led by Turkey is unlawful under international law. WILPF stands strong beside Syrian women and civilians at large who are enduring the horrific humanitarian repercussions as a result of the invasion. We remain deeply alarmed by the mass waves of displacement that are leaving more than hundreds of thousands without homes, protection, or access to basic services. We also express our unyielding support to Syrian civil society activists, particularly Syrian women leaders and peacebuilders, who have been for many years tirelessly working towards peace, equality, and justice across the country.