When the uprisings in Syria began back in March 2011, women were on the front lines of the protests. They used schools as their medium to communicate and held a semi-equal status in society. In the almost 3 years since, there has been a serious degradation in the status and treatment of Syrian women, and now Syria stands to have an entire generation uneducated. The status of women and children needs to change immediately for Syria to rebuild as a just and equal state.
In the early stages, the Syrian uprisings were empowering for women. They held a more prominent role in society and were given the opportunity to take on new responsibilities “such as fighting, community leadership, and supporting their families.” Women were able to increase their influence and formed the Syrian Women’s Network to discuss the role of women in Syria’s transition to democracy.
Syrian youth used schools to support women speaking out and amplify the voices in protest. Children, who were eventually arrested and tortured, wrote on the walls of their schools the slogan of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”
The State of Women
But as Syria enters its fourth year of unrest, much has changed with regards to the status of women and students. First, women who were initially at the forefront of the protests have been urged to stay away as the conflict has become more violent. They have instead taken on more humanitarian roles by bringing food and medicine to refugee camps. Second, at the grass-roots level, “few women attend the political conferences held in Turkey to discuss building a transitional government and institutions if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is toppled.” Women are not involved in the conversations surrounding the future interim government or the means of rebuilding the country they were the first to defend. The Syrian Women’s Network exists for equal participation in democracy and governance,
“But it remains to be seen if they can break through the historic Syrian social norms and gain representation in national negotiations on the future of their country.” (Peacefare)
The State of Children
What began with students using their schools to fight peacefully for political freedom, has developed into millions of children forced to flee and drop out of school. There is a serious risk of an entire generation uneducated in Syria due to the ongoing conflict. The Syrian civil war has displaced over 3 million children inside Syria. Additionally, in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq over 1 million children are refugees with 425,000 under the age of five.
This massive and rapid influx of refugee children is taking a serious toll on the local education systems of the host nations. According to a recent UNHCR Report, 80 percent of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon were not in school and 56 percent in Jordan were not enrolled. Not only are these numbers frighteningly low, but the school systems in Jordan and Lebanon are ill equipped to handle the increase in attendance. Space is limited and teachers face the challenge not only of instructing larger class sizes, but also coping with language barriers and psychologically traumatized students.
Fighting for Progress
There are, however, cohorts of Syrians who will not accept a dismal future for women or children. A 150 all-female battalion fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo is a sign that women are back where they started on the front lines fighting for justice.
Also, a group of academics has created the Free Syrian University in Turkey, just a few miles from the Syrian border. Formal enrollment is at 870 but the university, which sends it’s lessons to students still in Syria via the Internet and social media, has hundreds more enrolled online. The goal of the university is to “prepare educated generations who seek to build a country of law and justice and institutions.”
But sustainable change will not occur until girls are next to the boys in these classes providing feedback about what just institutions will look like. Women in Syria are doing unimaginable work to keep their country and citizens alive. But women’s rights in post-Assad Syria depend on the ability of girls to get an education now and on women to have equal say in the negotiations.
Let the women of Syria finish what they started. They will help do it the right way.
Click here to find out more information about UNICEF’s strategy “No Lost Generation.”