After Years Of Being Sidelined, Syrian Women Aim To Make History At Peace Talks

This article was original published on Huffington Post on March 17, 2016. 

HuffPologoFor five years, women have protested, fought, delivered aid, brokered peace and documented atrocities on the ground in Syria.

Yet, when Syrians tried to end the war, women were sidelined. They have been largely absent from the negotiating table in rounds of failed talks since 2012.

Fresh United Nations-brokered peace talks kicked off in Geneva this week, and many hope that a mostly observed cessation of hostilities and partial withdrawal of Russian troops are signs that the negotiations will be more successful than those of the past. 

One aspect of the talks has already inspired some cautious optimism: More women are involved than ever before, but it remains to be seen how much influence they will wield over the discussions.

Last month, the U.N. announced the formation of the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board — a group of 12 Syrian women from different professional, political and religious backgrounds to advise the U.N. special envoy overseeing the peace talks. The formation of the group, which is the first-ever formal women’s advisory board to a U.N. envoy, is a “historic moment,” said U.N. Women. 

On the eve of the talks, Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy on Syria, made a point of meeting with the women’s board.

“I strongly believe that this is a golden opportunity for Syrian women,” Mouna Ghanem, founder of the Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace and a member of the advisory board, told The WorldPost. Now it’s crucial for the board to be able to influence all parties at the peace talks, and bring the women’s agenda to the table, she said.

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When Will There Be a UN Secretary-General Like Me?

HuffPologoFor the Muslims, Christians, Jews and followers of other Abrahamic faiths that make up over half the world’s population, the founding gender myth is that of Adam and Eve. In the beginning, man is created in perfection, but in order to enjoy the companionship of woman he had to give something up. Some scriptures are particularly specific of the nature of Adam’s sacrifice, describing the creation of woman from a “crooked rib.”

And how did Eve repay Adam for his sacrifice? By leading him to the fall from grace. From the very beginning then, women are not only subordinate to men – their humanity is somehow lesser than that of man, being as they are just a little piece of him – and they are not to be trusted with responsibility.

This was the story about women I heard the most growing up, as I’m sure it was for millions more women. The potency that the story of Adam and Eve retains in our shared cultures cannot be underestimated. In so many cultures the authority that men hold over women – their mothers, their sisters, their wives, their daughters – is justified by traditions dating back to Adam and Eve.

It is against this orthodoxy that the global women’s movement has had to struggle. Despite the huge progress that has been made, when we look at the current situation for women it is clear that much structural discrimination still remains.

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Everything must go: Somalia sells its dignity

HuffPologoThe dramatic fall in the price of oil has had some unusual effects on the petro-economies of the Persian Gulf. Countries like Saudi Arabia have grown dependent on importing cheap foreign workers to do the jobs its citizens won’t. Now, traditional sources of domestic labor like South Asia have become uneconomical in straightened times. Saudis have had to look for cheaper alternatives, and no one can be bought more cheaply than the government of Somalia.

Despite notoriously appalling working conditions and examples of horrific abuse awaiting domestic staff, Saudi recruiters are believed to be seeking as many as 15,000 housemaids, a move that is thought to be welcomed with open arms by Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. His enthusiasm is in stark contrast to many other African leaders. Only last month the Ugandan government banned its citizens from taking up domestic work in Saudi Arabia after evidence of the torture of a Ugandan maid went viral.

When criminals seek to supply cheap labor across borders for abusive and exploitative employers, it is called human trafficking. When governments do the same it is apparently called creating jobs.

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Women are the Bridges Across Syrian Communities, They Will be the Peacemakers

HuffPologoAs talks to bring an end to nearly five years of conflict in Syria continue, it is essential that we learn the lessons of Iraq, Libya and the Arab revolutions if there is to be lasting peace. To rebuild stable state institutions after conflict, you need to make sure that everyone is able to take part in the process, and to achieve that there must be a safe environment for participation.

The war in Syria has been the longest continuous conflict to come out of the Arab revolutions in 2011, but the recent history of Iraq and Libya shows that even ceasefires and the fall of dictators do not necessarily mean that peace has been achieved.

The Libyan experience is one to which the world should pay close attention when we consider the post-conflict transition that will start when hostilities end in Syria. Libya saw a much shorter though no less intense civil war, beginning with protests in Benghazi and apparently ending with the death of Gadaffi. This was, however, only a symbolic end of the first chapter of revolution.

The war drew in foreign fighters and unleashed factional and sectarian armed groups. The failure to implement proper disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of these fighters left thousands armed in the war’s chaotic aftermath. The new Libyan state then also failed to implement security sector reform (SRR) to ensure basic protection for its citizens.

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#JusticeForSalwa is Justice For All

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This article was originally published at Huffington Post online.

On Human Rights Day last year, activists across the world united in demanding justice for Salwa Bugaighis, the Libyan human rights defender murdered as she returned from voting in that country’s general elections. A year on there has still been no serious investigation into this appalling attack on one of the bravest of human rights defenders, but we will not give up.

Salwa’s story is told in a new film that features her former colleagues in the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace. A fiercely intelligent and engaging women, Salwa had emerged as one of the leading voices in the Libyan revolution. She had joined with other lawyers protesting outside Benghazi’s courthouse, and went on to be a key figure in post-Gaddafi Libya as a member of the National Transitional Council and vice-president of the National Dialogue Preparatory Commission. After she had cast her vote in the general elections in June 2014 – and encouraged others to do the same – masked men burst into Salwa’s home, shooting her dead and abducting her husband, Essam El Gheriani, who is still missing to this day.

The lack of accountability for human rights violations in Libya – the fact that militias have been able to carry out their murderous acts with impunity – has only made the situation more dangerous for human rights defenders. Less than a month after Salwa’s murder, former congresswoman Fariha Al-Berqawi was shot dead in Derna. Though the security situation in Libya remains parlous, Salwa’s friends, colleagues and family continue her struggle for a democratic Libya, as well as demanding for justice for Salwa, Essam, Fariha and all those dedicated to securing universal respect for human rights.

The strength and the importance of human rights lie in their universality and indivisibility. It means that for all the differences between the experience of human rights activists on the streets of Tripoli and those on the streets of Washington, DC, our goals are shared. Our demands are simply that a girl in Kinshasa has the same right to liberty as a pensioner in Tokyo, that education should no more be denied to Yemeni children than it should be to Swedish children, that freedoms of thought, conscience and religion should be the same in Raqqa as they are in Rotterdam.

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We Won’t End Violence Against Women in 16 Days But It’s a Start

HuffPologoFor the next 16 days, activists across the world will be joining UN Women in global efforts to end violence against women and girls, starting on November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, leading up to Human Rights Day on December 10.

For those of us working on this cause in the Arab region, the acute, extreme and tragic forms of gender-based violence are all too common. A year ago, we used the 16 days to highlight a particularly brutal example, the murder of Libyan human rights activist Salwa Bughaighis as she returned from voting in the general election in June 2014.

The tragedy of Salwa embodied so many of the worst aspects of Arab women’s experience in conflict, from the deliberate targeting of a powerful advocate for women’s rights to the apparent impunity of the killers. As friends and colleagues, we said that if the killers of Salwa could simply get away with their terrible crime, then no women is safe; when the murderers of women walk the streets with impunity, it is innocent women who live in fear, that is why we said Justice for Salwa is Justice for All.

The voices of protest that came from across the world have helped to build pressure, and earlier this year the UN Human Rights Council issued a Resolution requesting that the High Commissioner to “dispatch a mission to investigate violations and abuses of international human rights law in Libya that have been committed since the beginning of 2014.” Last month at the UN we talked to Mogens Lykketoft, President of the General Assembly, about the possibility of an international resolution to protect human rights defenders like Salwa. Last week, news broke that an arrest had been made, and a suspect apparently confessed to the murder. It is progress, but it is slow progress – a feeling all too familiar for women’s rights activists across the world.

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The Woman Who Told Libyans to “Fight Peacefully by Using Your Vote”

imagesThis op-ed was originally published online on The Huffington Post.

June 26, 2015 – A year ago today, what many saw as Libya’s last chance for a democratic future ended in the kind of tragedy and violence that has marked the country’s recent history.

Many thousands had been expected to vote in the general elections but fears over security saw more than three quarters of registered voters stay at home. Those fears were well founded as armed gangs sought to target the method and means of Libya’s transition to democracy.

That morning, the human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis had rallied her supporters with a message that they must “fight peacefully by using your vote”, assuring them that the militias “will not beat us and they will not thwart our democracy…We are determined to build the Libya we have always dreamed of.”

Salwa was a voice for Libyan freedom that had been recognised internationally. She had campaigned against the Gaddfi regime as a student, as a lawyer she defended political prisoners arrested by its security apparatus, and had been one of the first women to take part in Libya’s Arab revolution protests in front of the courthouse in Benghazi. She had been a member of Libya’s National Transitional Council and had campaigned vociferously for women to have a central role in Libya’s future. As she returned home from casting her vote that day, a gang of hooded men shot Salwa dead.

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