Written by SETF Media and Communications Director, Cassie Chesley about SETF’s civil society engagement with Syrian women.

One of the most rewarding aspects of SETF fieldwork is providing a space for Syrians of all backgrounds and religious orientations to meet and interact. SETF recently initiated programs with a focus on female empowerment and government training, mainly designed at encouraging and preparing women to engage with civil society and participate actively in local governance. Women from all over Syria, Idlib, Hassakah, Lattakia, Aleppo, and Homs attended a training on how to run for local office and good governance practices.

Participants were instructed by two Tunisian women who had participated in governance and civil-society development during their country’s own revolution, as well as a female governance expert from Jordan. The first half of the workshop focused on empowering the women and instructing them on development of a political platform and a campaign strategy. The second half of the training focused on good governance practices. In addition to gaining these skills and developing their knowledge of civil society, the workshop was an opportunity for women from all over Syria to come together and build a sense of camaraderie through their shared experiences.

The participants were as diverse as the once-strong fabric of Syrian society. A Kurdish woman from the town of Efrin traveled to the training, sticks out in my memory. We managed to communicate through broken English and broken Arabic. She shared with me that she had never left Aleppo before, let alone Syria. Needless to say, I was impressed, that despite her fear she traveled to learn about civil society and government. She told me about her life and how her father had insisted she come to the workshop despite the fact that she would miss her brother’s wedding. She was 27 and a schoolteacher.

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Another woman traveled for three days to reach the workshop. She too was Kurdish from Aleppo province. She had traveled with her husband and baby girl to the workshop. The border was too dangerous and so they had been held up for a few days. She arrived halfway through the workshop, but upon her arrival she jumped right in. She works together with her husband to provide workshops and services to women and to their community at large. She was excited to learn new ways to support her town and community; however, she also expressed a fear of returning home. There is nothing there—only shelling, poverty, and IDPs.

I met a woman who was from Aleppo, but is currently running a women’s center for Syrian refugees in Turkey. She is the mother of two disabled children. As a child, her and her family were kicked out of Syria because her father was part of the Muslim brotherhood. When she wanted to come back to Aleppo to get married, the regime allowed her to return without problem. Upon her arrival, she was informed she would not be able to leave the country again. For 16 years she was unable to leave Syria and see her family. She was clearly the maternal figure amongst the group of participants. She was strong, funny, and wonderful. She plans to run for local office someday soon.

After spending a week with women from all walks of life, a common theme emerged. All of them were very engaged with and working to better their local communities, yet all of them faced profound challenges of danger and instability. The insecure situation does not prevent them from providing aid or moving forward with local governance activities; however, development of civil society is not enough when there is no food, water, or physical security. The matter of security must first be addressed before the lessons of such trainings can fully take root inside Syria. The development community must match the enthusiasm and commitment of these women, and continue to provide training, as well as more essential material support.

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