What started in March 2011 as peaceful protests against the Assad regime has escalated into a devastating conflict with many armed actors, including from other countries such as Lebanon, Iran and Russia. There does not seem to be a solution in the near future for the brutal Syrian conflict. Many women were instrumental in sparking and organizing demonstrations against the Assad regime. Later, when protesting publicly became extremely difficult, they were indispensable as civil society leaders and peace-builders.

The conflict intensified in 2015. Fights between pro- and anti-government forces continued. Control over territory by religious extremist groups such as ISIL and Jabhat al Nusra increased. The conflict dynamics in Syria are increasingly influenced by international actors. Government forces and rebel groups continue to commit human rights violations. There has been documentation that rape and sexual violence are used systematically against women and men in the regime’s prisons, which are detaining tens of thousands of political prisoners.

Religious extremist groups, and ISIL in particular, have committed grave atrocities against girls and women, including stoning to death, kidnapping, and enslaving thousands of Yazidi (and other minority) women and girls. Sunni women and girls have been subjected to sexual slavery and forced marriages. Under ISIL rule women are removed from public life, have no freedom of movement (without a male chaperone), and are placed under control of male relatives. They are subject to harsh punishment for violating ISIL rules.

Despite the ongoing violence and presence of religious extremists, Syrian peace and democracy activists – including many women – are still active within and outside Syria. At the start of the peaceful revolution many women founded civil society organisations which are still functioning today and which are filling crucial needs on the ground for local peace and democracy-building, humanitarian assistance, and psycho-social support, among other things. Many are using these platforms to raise awareness about women’s rights and gender equality as well as to demand the meaningful inclusion of women in negotiations for a political solution to the violence. Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy is an example of an important platform demanding full inclusion and participation of women in the peace negotiations.

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