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For Jordan, U.S. Support ‘Guaranteed’

As I have traveled to Jordan over the past few years, I have witnessed up close the impact of regional instability and the influx of refugees from the Syrian crisis. At the community level, resources and services are stretched thin. At the national level, the impact is being felt on budget priorities. A recent USAID study estimates the fiscal cost for Jordan of hosting Syrian refugees is staggering—equivalent to 2.4 percent of Jordan’s GDP.

In a neighborhood of growing instability, time and time again Jordan has been a steadfast partner in the years. It is vitally important the United States assist Jordan to stand firm and maintain a strong economy in the face of regional uncertainty.

Thats why yesterday, the bond sale for a second United States-backed loan guarantee for Jordan, is especially relevant.

This second loan guarantee — for $1 billion - will help Jordan shoulder some of the enormous burden it is currently managing. It fulfills the commitment made by President Obama during his meeting in California this year with Jordan’s King Abdullah. President Obama noted at that meeting that, “we have very few friends, partners and allies around the world that have been as steadfast and reliable as His Majesty King Abdullah, as well as the people of Jordan.”

The loan guarantee will allow Jordan to access affordable financing from international capital markets—ensuring that it can continue to provide critical services to its citizens, even as it hosts over 600,000 Syrian refugees in this small country of 6 million people.

The future of Jordan

The future of Jordan / USAID

USAID is supporting the Government and host communities of Jordan as they cope with the Syrian crisis. We have re-oriented existing programs to account for the flow of refugees and added funds to focus directly on stresses caused by the crisis. With 85 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan living outside of refugee camps in local communities, the United States is helping expand school room and hospital capacity and increase trash collection.

Just last week, as part of Let Girls Learn, we announced a $12 million grant to help Jordanian schools provide education to Syrian refugees, including 180,000 children.

Our partnership did not start with the current crisis. For over 60 years, USAID and Jordan have worked together as partners in development. Together we are creating modern learning environments for Jordan’s young population, providing them with the education and skills to compete in a global market. To spur Jordan’s economic growth, USAID programs are promoting workforce development, job creation, and supporting regulatory and fiscal policy reforms.

Building on the success of last year’s loan guarantee agreement with Jordan, the current loan guarantee will enable the United States to continue to work alongside other donors—including the IMF—to support Jordan’s ongoing economic reforms. It will spur broad-based growth—helping Jordan to develop a more competitive workforce, reduce the strain on public services, and create good jobs.

Finally, Jordan is one of the driest countries on earth and has one of the highest population growth rates in the region. Demand for water far exceeds Jordan’s renewable freshwater sources, particularly with the continuing influx of refugees. Here, too, USAID is helping communities improve water resource management and rebuild aging water and wastewater infrastructure. USAID is also helping Jordanian families obtain low cost cisterns to collect water for households and gardens especially as families and communities expand with new arrivals from Syria.

USAID is helping families in Jordan, such as this one, improve water resource management. / Alyssa Mueller

USAID is helping families in Jordan, such as this one, improve water resource management. / Alyssa Mueller

Rapid population growth has reduced the amount of fresh water available to the average Jordanian to less than 158 cubic meters per year—10 times less than the average U.S. citizen consumes. The renewable water supply, replenished each year by rainfall, only meets about half of total water consumption.

Helping Jordan’s government continue to provide essential services, like access to potable water, is critical as the country manages its own development with an increased burden of hundreds of thousands of refugees in an unstable neighborhood. The loan guarantee is an important demonstration that today and tomorrow we stand by our strong partnership with the people of Jordan.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alina Romanowski is Deputy Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Middle East Bureau

The Syrian Conflict Through the Lens of Women and Girls

Syrian refugees walk along the outer perimeter of a refugee camp on the Syrian border. / Odd Andersen, AFP

Syrian refugees walk along the outer perimeter of a refugee camp on the Syrian border. / Odd Andersen, AFP

The numbers are stark. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights currently estimates that some 150,000 Syrians have perished in that country’s ongoing conflict. Over 6 million Syrians have been displaced inside the country, often multiple times; and approximately 2.7 million people have fled Syria, mostly into neighboring nations.

The majority of those are women and children, who have been exposed to serious risks during their flight, in camps, and in unfamiliar countries’ cities and towns.

The crisis in Syria presents humanitarian, developmental and demographic challenges that are seldom seen at this magnitude. We recently returned from Jordan and Turkey where we came away with very profound impressions regarding the gendered lens of the conflict; the challenge of gender-based violence (GBV); and, the roles that women are playing as agents of change.

It is hard to tell with any certainty exactly how many women are suffering various forms of sexual violence in Syria. Assessments, done by local and international organizations, do identify women and children as among the most vulnerable.

Anecdotally, many displaced Syrian women and girls report having experienced violence or knowing people that have suffered attacks, in particular rape.

A women carries food commodities in the Aleppo neighborhood of Tariq al-Bab. / Odd Andersen, AFP

A women carries food commodities in the Aleppo neighborhood of Tariq al-Bab. / Odd Andersen, AFP

But in spite of this horrifying situation, we also heard several heartening stories that humble us and provide the motivation to push forward and continue to elevate the voices of women enmeshed in this conflict:

  • Stories of women negotiating local cease fires in Zabadani and of removing armed actors from schools in Aleppo;
  • Stories of women delivering life-saving medical supplies despite the grave risks to themselves and their families;
  • Stories of women in eastern Syria who worked with merchants to stabilize commodity prices so that citizens could remain in their homes;
  • And stories of women in Latakia who convinced armed groups to permit establishment of a local civil society presence focused on peace-building.

Making sure these women are heard will be key to ending the violence.

These stories show some of the ways Syrian women are leading their communities. And USAID is working to create space for other fearless women across the country as we support the establishment of democratic processes and institutions in Syria that advance freedom, dignity, and development for all of its people.

Syrian women cook their food their makeshift houses at the refugee camp of Qah along the Turkish border. /  Bulent Kilic, AFP

Syrian women cook outside their makeshift houses at the refugee camp of Qah along the Turkish border. / Bulent Kilic, AFP

Consistent with our commitments under the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (NAP) [pdf] we are seeking to increase the participation and representation of women, youth, and minorities in governing bodies, with a view to building confidence in peaceful and representative transitional political processes.

Our mission in Jordan is helping to create inclusive, effective and accountable institutions that serve all of its population. For example, one community and medical center that we visited in one of the largest and poorest urban areas in Jordan now serves a dynamic population of Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrians — women, men, girls and boys — in the areas of computer literacy, job training, psycho-social care and basic education for young children. As a result of the far-reaching nature of the conflict and changing demographics of the neighborhood, the community has expanded its efforts to make services available to the entirety of the population.

USAID has stepped up commitments to meet the needs of women and girls, not only through our Implementation Plan for the NAP, but also in realizing the U.S. Government Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender Based Violence Globally [pdf]; the joint State-USAID Safe from the Start initiative; and through our shared leadership in 2014 of the Call to Action to Protect Women and Girls in Emergencies. We strive daily to live up to those commitments and eagerly look to the broader international community for collaboration.

USAID’s response in Syria and elsewhere around the world must serve, protect and empower all of those affected by crisis and conflict, and ensure their voices and priorities shape the humanitarian response and the approach to recovery and reconstruction.

On the Road to Innovation in the West Bank

Recently I spent two action-packed days visiting the West Bank where I saw the tremendous impact that the USAID West Bank and Gaza Mission’s work has in many sectors and witnessed several innovative projects.

Students at the Al Haffasi Coeducational Elementary School in Kafr Al Labad. USAID recently renovated the school adding three floors and six new classrooms.

Students at the Al Haffasi Coeducational Elementary School in Kafr Al Labad.
USAID recently renovated the school adding three floors and six new classrooms.

The work we are doing in the education sector and with youth is among the most exciting. USAID is currently partnering with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education on a national reading campaign to raise the public’s awareness of the importance of reading and to encourage everyone to read. I told students at the Al Haffasi coeducational elementary school in Kafr Al Labad, in the Tulkarem Governorate what a gift reading is. The slogan for our campaign “Today’s Readers Tomorrow’s Leaders,” rings true and I encouraged all of the students to grab a book and spend time reading, dreaming and learning. At the school we distributed dozens of books to the students, including popular works of American fiction and non-fiction like “Colors in the Desert” and “Mystery at the Museum” translated into Arabic that I am certain the students will enjoy.

A Palestinian entrepreneur taking part in a mini-MBA program offered by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Tel Aviv University’s Recanati School of Management with support from USAID.

A Palestinian entrepreneur taking part in a mini-MBA program offered by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Tel Aviv University’s Recanati School of Management with support from USAID.

The ingenuity and creativity of young Palestinian entrepreneurs I met was very impressive. While these youth face many challenges, ranging from finding jobs to starting businesses, I am certain that they will find and seize opportunities for success. I told them about a USAID initiative that will provide support to early stage businesses to create and sustain jobs, encourage increased equity investment in early stage businesses, and advance and develop the investment environment. The young entrepreneurs I met specialize in fields ranging from software to agribusiness to energy, and so many things in between. They were passionate about their ideas and I am certain that they will help lead the Palestinian economy forward.

During my two-day stay, the USAID West Bank and Gaza Mission reached 100,000 likes on Facebook, an impressive milestone and a testament to the open channel of communication that the Mission has cultivated with its fans, most of whom are based in the West Bank and Gaza.  Check out the site – USAID West Bank/Gaza.  The Mission posts fantastic photos of its highly important activities and loves to hear from its fans.

While in the West Bank I also visited an innovative pilot project where wastewater is treated and then reused to irrigate crops. This initiative is extremely resourceful and I look forward to seeing the data on crop yields and freshwater resources saved. I hope that the success of this pilot program can be emulated at other locations in the West Bank. I also got a glimpse of the challenges that the mission faces, particularly with environmental issues. Visiting a polluted stream, a tannery, and a landfill, I saw the complexities of the proper disposal of waste and sewage.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Romanowski briefed at Beit Fajjar in the West Bank on environmental issues and proper disposal of waste and sewage.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Romanowski briefed at Beit Fajjar in the West Bank
on environmental issues and proper disposal of waste and sewage.

I was pleased to see that the mission’s implementation of the High Impact Micro Infrastructure Initiative, a $100 million initiative announced by Secretary of State John Kerry in November 2013, is advancing according to schedule, with more than 40 infrastructure activities underway, and more scheduled to begin in the near future. These infrastructure projects are coordinated with the Palestinian Authority and municipal authorities to support Palestinian national priorities and include construction or renovation of health clinics, road repairs, construction of community centers and school, and other similar projects.  This initiative aims to provide Palestinians with quick, tangible infrastructure improvements in dozens of communities throughout the West Bank.

The range of people and projects that I saw over the course of two days was impressive.  While the challenges that numerous people and communities face are serious, their innovation and ingenuity are incredible and inspiring.

The Cost of Corruption

Many consider corruption to be an unavoidable cost of doing business around the Middle East and North Africa. The costs of corruption are obvious, and widely acknowledged. It is commonly accepted that corruption limits development, siphons off critical development resources, causes citizens to lose confidence in their governments, and undermines the region’s progress toward democratic reform. In spite of this, many just assume that corruption is here to stay, and that there’s little ordinary citizens can do to push back.

USAID-supported youth CSO coalitions share perspectives on constitutional reform, youth representation in parliament, and other government initiatives affecting youth.

Credit: USAID/K. Rhanem

In recent years, USAID has played a key role in supporting regional anti-corruption efforts. In partnership with Transparency International, we launched the ACTION program – Addressing Corruption Through Information and Organized Networking – in order to study corruption in the region and develop a roadmap for addressing it. The project examined corruption in Yemen, Morocco, Egypt and West Bank/Gaza. Last fall, activists from around the region gathered to present a series of case studies detailing examples of corruption, the costs corruption imposes, and potential solutions.

A critical first step in addressing corruption is ensuring that regional legislation protects citizen access to information. As Palestinian journalist Ahed Abu Teima observed, “access to information, and the provision of information to journalists, reporters and the media, is one of the most important factors in the success of anti-corruption efforts.”

The project documented how existing legislation in all four countries limits access to information critical to identifying corruption, for example through secrecy laws in Egypt and Morocco. As a result, citizens and citizen groups are unequal partners in their relationship with government institutions, undermining a country’s democratic development. Adequate legislation is a necessary first step in the battle against corruption. “The only way, the best way, to end corruption is to establish transparency on a broad scale. That isn’t going to happen without the passing of a law,” said Egyptian professor Khaled Fahmy.

ACTION launched an anti-corruption portal that for the first time provides Middle East and North Africa-region activists, academics and media professionals with research and action-oriented tools and resources. The project also developed a series of video case studies profiling anti-corruption activists in each of the four countries.

Initiatives such as ACTION are making a difference. In 2011 Morocco included language ensuring access to information in its constitution, and in 2013 drafted a corresponding law. In 2012 Yemen enacted an access to information law and may include it as a constitutional right. Prior to the change in Egypt’s government in July 2013, the government had drafted an access to information law and included the right in the 2012 constitution. Egyptians are now waiting to see how these commitments are carried forward by the transitional administration.

Disclosure of governmental activities and access to information are core principles of open government and democratic reform. They are essential tools in battling corruption, and promoting accountability, transparency and integrity. Through efforts such as our partnership with Transparency International, we are helping to lay the long-term foundations for a successful transition to democracy around the Middle East.

Registering for Democracy in Yemen

Yemen is poised to launch a high-tech Biometric Voter Registry (BVR) system representing a significant step forward in the development of a credible voter registry in that country. During my recent visit to Yemen, I met with the chairman of Yemen’s Supreme Commission of Elections and the Referendums (SCER) Judge Mohammed Hussein Al-Hakimi to learn first-hand about the opportunities and challenges that exist for Yemen’s upcoming electoral processes.

During her recent visit, USAID DAA Elisabeth Kvitashvili practices registering with Yemen's new biometric voter registration system.   Photo credit: USAID

During her recent visit, USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator Elisabeth Kvitashvili practices registering with Yemen’s new biometric voter registration system.
Photo credit: USAID

For a country with previous voter registries acknowledged to contain duplicate and under-age voters, as well as “ghost” voters, the use of the new registry will generate a list of voters that is far more rigorous and less susceptible to fraud. Past voter registries were compiled manually and took upwards of two years to complete.

Funded by international donors, including USAID, the registry is a public sector IT project with software procured in Yemen and ranks among the most sophisticated in the world.  I was eager to try it out and so I was fingerprinted–both hands–on a screen that “captured” my fingerprints and then photographed with special eye recognition technology.

The new biometric registration process will generate a far more accurate voters list. It will also provide the government, in particular the Civil Status and Registration Authority, with the basis to complete their civil register and assist in the issuance of a national identity card.  To our knowledge, this is the first biometric voter registration project undertaken in the Middle East and North Africa region and is on par with recent, high-quality projects, such as one developed in Kenya last year.

The registry is housed with the SCER which is charged with carrying out the registry in advance of national elections scheduled in the next year. The elections will follow a constitutional drafting process and referendum, both of which will receive major technical support from USAID.

As an essential foundation for a modern civil Yemeni state, the country’s upcoming constitutional referendum is an important process of giving citizens an opportunity to register their opinion on the outcomes of the recently completed National Dialogue Conference.

Building Skills and Promoting Collaboration among the Middle East and North Africa’s Budding Journalists

I have a rule of thumb when looking at the democratic transitions underway around the Middle East and North Africa. When the press is open and objective, I am optimistic. When it’s muzzled and biased, I am concerned. At its best, an objective and professional media can hold accountable government and business leaders, and educate and inform citizens. At its worst, poor journalism can mislead, minimize growing problems, and even provide cover for incompetence and corruption.

Around the Middle East and North Africa, USAID is partnering with The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) to empower the region’s professional journalists, as well as  citizen journalists, to report on public-service issues that affect citizens’ everyday lives. The Building a Digital Gateway to Better Lives Program, administered by USAID’s Office of Middle East Programs, provides online instruction, in-person training and peer learning, and mentoring to participating journalists. Particular emphasis during the training is placed on the  use of digital media tools. The program also provides seed funding for promising investigative projects.

Journalists from Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco discuss a collaborative research project at a regional training program organized by USAID and ICFJ in Rabat, Morocco. (Photo: Frank Folwell, ICFJ)

Journalists from Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco discuss a collaborative research project at a regional training program organized by USAID and ICFJ in Rabat, Morocco. (Photo: Frank Folwell, ICFJ)

So far, over 250 journalists from Morocco to Yemen have participated in the training programs. ICFJ and USAID recently brought together 30 of the most talented participants, 11 of them women, to Morocco to work on cross-border investigative projects tackling regional topics that transcend national boundaries. The quality of their work is astounding. Research topics covered hard-hitting and challenging topics including trafficking of women, the black market for pharmaceuticals, and targeted recruitment of the region’s youth by extremist organizations.

Experience sharing is critical to the success of the program. I enjoyed watching how valuable the broader regional perspective was to individual participants. Group work was filled with moments of inspiration where participants realized that issues they encounter are also experienced elsewhere, or where participants from one country shared an experience which deepened the thinking of participants from another. A tight network has formed among participants, allowing them to share experiences, challenges and successes. USAID/Morocco Mission Director Dana Mansuri, who met with the group, relayed that her mother worked as a journalist and newspaper librarian, and how her comprehensive knowledge inspired her own curiosity and love of learning. As I watched this peer-to-peer learning and support develop, I understood better why developing the skills and capacity of local partners and participants sits at the heart of USAID Forward.

The success of the democratic transitions underway around the Middle East and North Africa will depend on well-informed voters educated by a professional and objective media. Ismail Azzam, journalism graduate from Morocco, confirmed that, “I learned more in these USAID-ICFJ workshops than I did in four years of university studies. This program teaches us the journalism skills we need in the real world.” Through our collaboration with ICFJ, USAID is helping regional journalists report with objectivity and impact. As Mission Director Mansuri recalled at the event, quoting Oscar Wilde, “In America, the President reigns for four years. Journalism governs forever and ever.”

Wafaa El Adawy is a Cairo-based Program Management Specialist with USAID’s Office of Middle East Programs.

Maintaining Women’s Potential in Yemen

“The women of Yemen should never again be relegated as second class citizens.”
-Attendee of the New Voices of Yemen Dinner, March 3, 2014

This was the heart of the messaging from the New Voices of Yemen: Women Leaders Dinner I attended on my second evening in the country’s capital, Sana’a. These women, a far larger network than the 20 who attended the dinner, gathered together once again to promote women’s political participation in the continuing transformation of the country.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Elisabeth Kvitashvili in Yemen

Deputy Assistant Administrator Elisabeth Kvitashvili in Yemen

With the recent successful conclusion of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference, the women lobbied me to ensure USAID would continue to maintain its support in amplifying their voices, calling for a commitment to the quota of 30 percent women’s representation in constitution drafting, elections, and cabinet positions. They also recognize the need to promote opportunities for women in leading private sector roles in support of much needed economic reforms for Yemen.

Women play such a critical role in all of Yemeni society as demonstrated by the small representation at the dinner of a much, much larger community. Women leaders from the government, civil society, and private sector connect through various networks such as Women’s Integrated Network and Women’s National Committee that they themselves established. These women transcend the country’s north and south divisions as much as political differences. They represent the women of Yemen, young and old.

The two women who facilitated the lively and energetic discussion, Entiem and Rabab both represent the dynamic and articulate nature of these new voices of Yemen. They are part of the youth segment representing the future of Yemen.

These new voices play a critical role in assuring Yemen continues on a path toward peace and prosperity, and USAID plans to continue to support their empowerment and equality.

Crafting Economic Empowerment for Women in North Lebanon

On a sunny October morning, I was blinking back tears of pride as 39 women, hailing from poor families, some with Down syndrome, gathered on a terrace to receive certificates celebrating their completion of a handicraft and soap making training workshop supported by USAID. Atayeb el Rif (Rural Delights), a cooperative that specializes in local gourmet foods and delicacies, organized the training as part of a grant it received under the USAID Lebanon Industry Value Chain Development (LIVCD) project to enhance the economic status of women in North Lebanon.

The USAID LIVCD project is a five-year project that provides income-generating opportunities for small businesses while creating jobs for rural populations, in particular women and youth.

The USAID LIVCD project is a five-year project that provides income-generating opportunities for small businesses while creating jobs for rural populations, in particular women and youth. Photo Credit: DAI

North Lebanon, an area that has seen a large influx of Syrian refugees, had already been facing many economic challenges, most notably loss of income due to scarce employment opportunities. USAID has intensified efforts in this region to help Lebanese communities hosting Syrian refugees through targeted assistance. The grant, launched in May 2012, helps provide economic opportunities for women and youth in rural areas, and thereby decrease migration to already over populated urban areas and improve Lebanon’s economic stability. As part of the grant, a six-day training workshop, related to accessories, needle work, soap making, and soap decoration skills, was provided to 120 women in three areas in North Lebanon, Batroun, Koura, and Donnieh. In addition to the training, each woman also received a tool kit containing $150 worth of supplies, tools, beads, molds, and threads to enable them to start their own small production home-based enterprises.

I was impressed by the array of handicrafts on display, ranging from beautifully decorated soaps to beaded fabrics, done with meticulous attention to detail and most of all passion. In fact, it was easy to sense that passion as the women enthusiastically shared their stories with us. “This training opened new opportunities. I will start producing accessories soon, and I hope to be able to open my own little shop to sell them. I also plan to benefit from the project’s assistance in marketing and to attend exhibitions and fairs to display my handicrafts,” commented one of the participants. But it was a 23-year old participant with Down syndrome, whose testimonial touched all attendees as she spoke with courage and pride about the prospects of this opportunity in ensuring a better income for her family.

The USAID Lebanon Industry Value Chain Development continued support to the women after their training graduation by providing ongoing coaching. USAID also facilitated the women’s access to markets by helping them to rent space at holiday events and fairs to sell their products to generate additional income. The USAID LIVCD project is a five-year project that provides income-generating opportunities for small businesses while creating jobs for rural populations, in particular women and youth.

I walked away with a basket of beautiful soap accessories that I can hang around the house for a profusion of scents. But most of all, I walked away inspired by the determination of these women to go beyond their potential in order to be the catalysts for change and growth in their community and country.

Participants receiving their certificate of attendance. Photo Credit: DAI

Participants receiving their certificate of attendance. Photo Credit: DAI

Defending Civil Society Organizations in Egypt

While Egypt’s civil society plays an important role in defending civilian rights and promoting development, civil society organizations frequently find themselves under criticism. Our contributions are belittled. Our work is obstructed. Our motivations are called into question.

To counter these ongoing distortions, my organization, the Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies, launched a community advocacy campaign, in cooperation with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and its implementing partner The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) to raise awareness about the need to defend freedom of association and lift the restrictions on civil society.

Still from ICNL's video on funding for civil society organizations. Click to view video (in Arabic)

Still from ICNL’s video on funding for civil society organizations. Click to view video (in Arabic)

Specifically, we developed two short films about the role of civil society and the benefits it provides to regular citizens. The first film addresses the question of “What is Civil Society?” by summarizing the role civil society organizations play in modern day Egypt, and highlighting several examples of our impact in education, health, and promoting civic freedoms and rights.

The second film addresses funding for civil society organizations, particularly contributions from international donors. This issue has generated a heated debate over the past few years, and many have tried to cast doubt on our work by highlighting our partnership with international donors. We tackled this issue by discussing the reasons why international donors provide funding for Egyptian civil society, what types of activities and services they provide, and how these activities contribute to the development of society and the economy.

To supplement these films, we produced two research papers: the first provided answers to questions about the funding of civil society, and the second pointed out several flaws in an Egyptian law which, which regulates our activities and constrains our ability to effectively serve our communities.

As a result of this campaign, the general public and the media began to pay attention. A dialogue was launched about the role of civil society and the campaign against our work. In particular, Dream TV, an Egyptian TV station, aired portions of our videos and provided a platform for two of our representatives to explain the purpose of civil society and the concept of foreign funding to the Egyptian public. In addition, several newspapers and online websites reported on our campaign and films.

While many challenges remain for organizations like mine in Egypt and around the region, we are hopeful that our efforts help expand the role that civil society can play in the democratic transitions underway and increase the role for citizen voices. Our work to promote freedom of association in Egypt and lift the restrictions imposed on Egyptian civil society will continue. Over the past few years we have learned that the united voice of citizens cannot be ignored. By making citizens more aware of the important role civil society plays, we are helping our democratic transitions succeed.

Syrian Women: Critical Partners for Peace

As negotiations to halt the violence in Syria continue, I am reminded daily of the essential role that Syrian women must play in order to resolve the crisis. Two weeks ago, I represented the U.S. Government at a high-level preparatory conference organized by UN Women and the Dutch Government to prepare women for a voice in the upcoming Geneva II talks. The compelling briefings and written declarations by delegates underscored how important women’s perspectives are to progress.

Despite their widely varying views regarding the future of Syria, the women who gathered in Geneva unambiguously called for an immediate end to violence, unfettered humanitarian access, and support of the Geneva 1 communique and diplomatic negotiations. Most importantly, their declaration also emphasized that women must participate robustly in all talks.

Syrian refugees in Ankara, Turkey

Credit: AFP/Adem Altan

I have no doubt that the perspectives of women will add breadth and depth to the conversations. Syrian women and girls are experiencing the conflict in specific ways. They are coping with sexual violence that can have a significant impact on their health, well-being, and position within their families and communities. They are assuming non-traditional roles as their husbands, fathers, and brothers go off to fight or are targeted by violence. They are facing the risk of being married off young in exchange for dowries to put food on their families’ table, or to pay rent.

Last week, Geneva II negotiations began and fortunately, for the mediators and for the Syrian people, women were included on government and opposition delegations. Today, the talks focus on enabling humanitarian aid for Homs. Women at the talks are reminding delegates that a diverse coalition of women called for medical and humanitarian aid weeks ago. These women can also help garner support for negotiations back home in Homs, in Aleppo, in Damascus and elsewhere, because they represent a constituency on the ground, living the violence every day.

The participation of these women will be invaluable because like other women before them, including in Sudan, Uganda, Iraq, and among Israelis and Palestinians, they raised unique issues during negotiations. Women focus on the need to re-establish civilian security; they emphasize the need to maintain and rebuild communities; and they focus attention on the needs and interests of the displaced. Women are well-connected to war-affected communities back home; they help create lines of communication to increase local knowledge and ownership of talks and support for negotiated solutions.

As negotiations continue, women will remain a critical resource in pushing for peace. They will be able to provide insight to the situation on the ground and best strategies for rebuilding and reuniting communities torn apart by the conflict.

It is in the global community’s own interest to ensure Syrian women’s continuing role and influence in dialog and problem-solving at both the local and national levels. Without their involvement, peace is likely to be harder to attain, more tenuous, and more fragile.

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