In its newly released 2015-2016 Report Card on International Cooperation, the Council of Councils gave the world a “C–” on “Preventing and Responding to Internal Violent Conflict.” This is the second year this category has received the lowest grade, “reflecting continued pessimism with the handling of the world’s most violent conflicts.”

Among the accompanying solemn, often wordy policy prescriptions—which centered around the Syrian crisis—was concise advice from Patricia Lewis of Chatham House: “Bring women into peace negotiation processes.”

The world’s history of sidelining women during peace negotiations proves such a recommendation for the Syria peace talks, or Geneva III, is much easier said than done. However, as we prepare for another round of the thus far calamitous peace talks to begin, reversing this trend could have a major impact on ending Syria’s war. The lack of women at the negotiating table—as explained to me by Mariam Jalabi, director of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), or the opposition’s, office in New York and a member of the High Negotiation Committee’s (HNC) Women’s Consultative Committee—is unfortunate, and not just for reasons of gender equality, or even the humanitarian advances women diplomats have been proven to prioritize. The accurate and meaningful representation of affected populations actually correlates lasting peace, post-accord.

Women’s Current Involvement in the Peace Negotiations

The long-delayed Geneva negotiations began on January 29, 2016; they then faltered and started once more in March, following the February 27 ceasefire agreement. Due to increased violence in Aleppo this June, the negotiations have been pushed back again, targeted to resume on or possibly before August 1.

Women’s participation in the negotiations thus far has been celebrated by some. Indeed, the creation of the twelve-member Women’s Advisory Board (WAB) to the UN mediator by Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy to Syria, is unique in its diversity, including both regime and opposition sympathizers. The formation of the Women’s Consultative Committee, which advises the HNC of the opposition’s team, is in line with the recommendation of advocates.

Who’s Actually at the Negotiating Table?

A closer look at women’s involvement in the peace talks reveals that present levels of representation are not as meaningful or accurate as may first meet the eye. For example, while the graphic produced by the Institute of Inclusive Security (below) is a helpful visual for understanding the entities involved in the peace talks, it exaggerates women’s actual inclusion in the Syria peace talks. In reality, the percentage of women on the negotiating teams for both the opposition and the Syrian government is hardly “unprecedented”: three of the fifteen delegates on the Syrian government’s team and three out of fifteen on SNC, the opposition’s team are women (20 percent). However, as explained to me by Jalabi, one of these women delegates also doubles as one of the women on the mostly male HNC, which exerts a large influence over the negotiations. When taken together, then, just four of the forty-eight representatives of the opposition (between the delegates and the HNC) are women, which translates to a meager 8.3 percent.

Source: Inclusive Security.
Source: Inclusive Security.

The presence of more women on the negotiating teams can lead to a better outcome. A UN Women study sheds light on negotiations that have broken gendered barriers and have shown how powerful having higher proportions of women actually at the table can be. It found that percentages of women’s participation as delegates ranged from zero to 35 percent (averaging at about 5 percent) in thirty-one peace processes between 1992 and 2011. Of them, the Oslo Joint Statement (2011) between the Government of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines had the highest proportion of women delegates at 35 percent, with fifteen of the forty-two participating members being women. It is widely considered to be the prime example of women successfully leading, influencing and contributing to the peace talks with direct access to the negotiating table. The 2008 Kenya peace talks included two women in their eight delegates and notably had a woman leading the government’s negotiating team, though also illustrated the common theme of women’s consultative groups being unable to formally engage in negotiations.

Bringing Perspective, But Beyond Just “Women’s Issues”

At all levels of governance, the case for gender parity is often supported by the claim that women better incorporate and advocate for social and humanitarian levels. Such an argument has proven to be well-documented, as well: For example, in the Ugandan peace talks with the Lord’s Resistance Army that concluded in 2008, it was women and civil society actors who were instrumental in making health and education central tenets of the agreement on disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. They created justice provisions through a compensation fund for victims; and notably highlighted the stoppage of gender-based violence by combatants in their definition of a true ceasefire.

Researchers Michelle Page, Tobie Whitman, and Cecilia Anderson write that women pay particular heed to displaced populations: “Improving the conditions of uprooted populations is critical to sustaining peace, yet those concerns often would not be considered if women did not bring them to light.”

The UN Women’s study of past peace accords, too, found that overall, women are more likely to make demands for human rights such as protection from and justice for gender-based and sexual violence (language on which is largely absent from such accords), increased participation for marginalized groups at the peace table and in politics, post-accords, as well as access to education and health.

When asked how she contends between the perpetual relegation of women in politics to soft, humanitarian, or “women’s issues,” while also fighting for progress on the humanitarian front with the most effective negotiators, Jalabi says, “Of course, this is why I want to include women. As 50 percent of the population, women have a different way of living, thinking, and a better way of making policy. I think this is better for human rights, better for humanitarianism.”

Jalabi gave me the example of the 2014 Geneva negotiations on Syria in which women were included at the last minute and were “shoved with humanitarian issues—and then this was the most successful [element of the peace efforts there].”

“Women always get this [the humanitarian issues] which is fine because they are more nuanced and capable of reconciliation, they are better peacekeepers,” She lamented. “The more women in government, the more effective [it is].”

“Women always get this [the humanitarian issues] which is fine because they are more nuanced and capable of reconciliation, they are better peacekeepers,” She lamented. “The more women in government, the more effective [it is].”

However, it is not just because of their abilities and expertise used to tackle humanitarian and gender issues that having women at peace tables is important. As Steven Heydemann, director of the Syria program at the United States Institute of Peace has said, “It’s not just because women have insights on problems affecting them that they should be included in peacebuilding. It is critical, not only because they are smart and have a lot to offer, but it is a demonstration to everyone who’s watching the negotiations about the commitment of the opposition to the importance of the participation of women in shaping Syria’s future.”

More Diverse Negotiating Teams Bring Lasting Peace

The utmost reason why women and other typically excluded stakeholders are needed at negotiating tables is the proven, lasting peace from accords that is achieved when they are involved in meaningful way. As researcher Desirée Nilsson has found, the risk of overall peace breaking down following peace accords falls by 60 percent when these civil society actors are involved as part of negotiations. After analyzing eighty-three peace accords reached between 1989 and 2004, Nilsson concluded “when wider spectra of society become involved in a peace process this can increase legitimacy of the process, which in turn may contribute to durable peace… The results here demonstrate that civil society actors such as trade unions, women’s organizations, and religious actors should preferably be given a role in peace settlements.”

Indeed, the representation of all of society’s stakeholders at peace talks is critical to the success of the peace accords reached due to the agreements’ perceived legitimacy by a larger subset of the affected population—half of which are women. Syria shows what we know to be true in conflict areas: with rampant death tolls, women are shifting into head of household roles and holding together their society, making it all the more urgent for their voices to be heard in negotiation processes.

But there is work to be done in terms of attaining meaningful representation of the women of Syria with the hopes of a legitimately perceived peace accord.

But there is work to be done in terms of attaining meaningful representation of the women of Syria with the hopes of a legitimately perceived peace accord. Kristin Williams of the Institute for Inclusive Security commented on women’s inclusion in the talks thus far, “It’s a good first step, but there needs to be more,” she said. “It’s clear from the survey that women inside Syria, women who are very active in the local councils and in civil society movements within Syria, do not feel engaged by the international community on these efforts around the peace talks.”

In order for this to happen, a more radical shift emphasizing gender equality in political culture must occur. Jalabi told me, “I believe that both the Consultative Committee and the Women’s Advisory Board are ultimately against women’s empowerment because of the sheer fact that they can’t actually sit at the table [as delegates]. They did it [created these bodies] to shut everyone up. These women fall into the category of ‘advisor.’ They are in the next room, a second step. By default, this is not representative.” This present reality of women in separate, advisory roles rather than in negotiating seats illustrates the need for a further cognitive shift.

Looking Forward for Syria

Certainly, the few women HNC delegates such as Bassma Kodmani and Hind Kabawat have exerted influence since the Syria peace talks last stalled. Visible progress such as their meeting with European Union leaders last week chips away at a cognitive shift toward acceptance of women in negotiating seats and further solidifies their role in the talks moving forward. Advocates and the media’s recognition of such progress is commendable, but they should be careful not to conflate the roles of advisories and of diplomats at the negotiating table. After all, the representation of women on the regime’s negotiating team leaves even more progress to be desired—if both teams hope to reach an agreement and maintain lasting peace following its signing, they should elevate more women to have seats at the negotiating table and consider them for leadership roles once there.

Furthermore, it is time for the UN to practice what it preaches in terms of putting their power behind encouraging gender parity and meaningful representation in peace mediations. This is a crucial step toward actual peace in Syria—and in conflicts around the world. Importantly, as Jalabi clarified, the Geneva talks are anything but an isolated case: “This is not simply a Middle Eastern problem, an Arab problem, a Muslim problem. I want to be clear that I am talking about the Syria situation within the context of the patriarchal system that we all live in, universally.”

Obviously, there are different cultural barriers to accomplishing meaningful gender representation in peace negotiations among different countries. This speaks to the importance of involving civil society groups in such peace talks to best shape approaches to changing perceptions of gender normatives on a case-by-case basis. For the Syria case, Jalabi believes the presence of women as advisories may be making a difference, already. When asked what her hopes are for a 30 percent gender quota—as has been recommended by the UN—for women in any future governing body for Syria, Jalabi responded, “The consultative committee is not pure bad. It does get them [the men] used to the idea of having women around. I’m actually hopeful—I don’t think it will reach 30 percent—but it will be better.”

She was sure of one thing: “Syria will have a better future because of women.”