The armed conflict in Syria has left more than 400,000 dead, led to 6.3 million internally displaced people, and has forced at least 5 million refugees to flee the country. Syrian citizens are caught in a cycle of security, humanitarian, and political crises that have left their communities in disorder and without governance. The world has witnessed indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets, horrific chemical weapons attacks, and a surge in the trafficking of women and girls, while extremist groups—both foreign and home-grown—are struggling for power in communities all over Syria. Finally, decades of authoritarian rule and oppression under the Assad regime have left no space for democracy and citizens’ rights.
Yet remarkably, and against the odds, Syrians in opposition-held areas are using democratic practices to forge solutions to their communities’ most pressing problems, including violence against women. To assist these efforts, NDI has conducted thousands of consultations and trained more than 2,300 council members and staff from 30 local councils in opposition areas to improve service delivery and governance. Since 2013, NDI has also organized over 1,000 civic education sessions—reaching 10,000 Syrians—on topics such as:
- political pluralism;
- women’s rights;
- local governance;
- democratic elections; and
- rule of law.
Syria Global Associate and Senior Resident Elvis Zutic describes NDI democracy efforts in opposition-held territory. To his left is Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (DE).
In June, Chairman Madeleine Albright and NDI experts held a lively discussion with top congressional leaders and the Democratic Women’s Working Group on efforts to combat sexual violence against women in Syria and build democracy in opposition-held areas. The Democratic Women’s Working Group includes the 65 Democratic women Members of Congress in the U.S. House of Representatives.
More than six years of war have taken a tremendous toll on everyone in Syria—but especially on women and girls. Despite such odds, Syrian women are fighting back against sexual violence and gender stereotypes—while working to establish democratic, civilian-led local governance in opposition-held communities.
- NDI Chairman Madeleine Albright
NDI’s Syria Senior Resident Director Elvis Zutic and Gender, Women and Democracy Director Sandra Pepera led the discussion, which included remarks by Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL), Women’s Caucus Co-Chair Lois Frankel, and NDI Chairman Madeleine Albright.
NDI Chairman and Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright with Rep. Lois Frankel (FL) on the left and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL) on the right.
According to a March 2017 NDI-commissioned poll, 97 percent of Syrian women believe that sexual violence is occurring within their communities; 75 percent believe that the status of women’s rights has worsened since the start of the conflict; and 83 percent state the prevalence of violence has increased, including forced or early marriage, harassment, sexual assault and rape.
Since June 2015, NDI has been working to promote women’s rights in opposition-held areas of Syria and to empower Syrian women to address sexual and gender-based violence. Government bodies at all levels—whether regime or liberated—lack sufficient female representation, shutting women out of policy discussions and allowing human rights violations to proliferate, not least of which is the ubiquitous use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
“Sexual violence is a real problem anywhere, but in Syria, the matter is further complicated by the fear of continuous shelling, the risk of detention, and the utter lack of timely and safe assistance—including health services, psychosocial, and legal support services—in liberated areas,” a civil society leader said during an NDI forum in January 2016.
NDI's Gender, Women and Democracy Director Sandra Pepera discusses violence against women in Syria and post-conflict zones. On far left is Rep. Val Demings (FL) with Rep. Julia Brownley (CA) next to Pepera.
The first step to solving a problem is to recognize that there is a problem. Because of its polling work and the series of forums NDI has held with women, senior officials from the Syrian Interim Government, including the Deputy Prime Minister and commanders of the Free Syrian Police, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, local government leaders and a range of civil society stakeholders, there is now general agreement that sexual violence against women is a problem in all regions of the country.
There can be no democracy without participation, no participation where there is violence, no sustainable peace where impunity reigns, and no democratic resilience without inclusion.
NDI’s program in Syria proves that even in the midst of war, democracy can still prosper at the community level. By empowering women to address and counter sexual and gender-based violence, NDI is providing Syrian women with the tools they need to promote women’s representation in public policy decisions during the current crisis, as well as building the skills and experience women need to have a greater voice in transition processes and a post-conflict Syria.