Nine years ago, when the Syrian revolution has not yet taken to the streets of Syria, there was another revolution which changed the life of human rights activist Widad Rahal and which was argument enough for her that social change was needed.
“I saw in the Child Care Society that what young children were going through no adult could endure.” Rahal told Enab Baladi about what she saw and how she was convinced of the importance of working in the field of defending human rights when she was a member of the society board of directors in Raqqa, and for her, the center looked more “like a prison.”
The change in Widad Rahal’s attitude, in addition to her experience as a student of Law, were the key to the actions she undertook after the Syrian revolution. She expanded her work and became a field activist involved in inspecting the humanitarian conditions of war-affected people at different levels and tried to find the way to empower people in order to regain their rights.
Today Rahal runs the Youth Association for Social Development in Idlib as a framework that brings together a number of young men and women in order to promote the youth’s political, social and cultural awareness.
The association that Widad Rahal is running is not the only organization which is engaged with human rights. In Idlib governorate, there are five legal organizations and associations which advocate human rights, according to the “list of Syrian Organizations” available on the website of Citizens for Syria.
Idlib’s organizations have joined 53 others that are already engaged in the same field of action within Syria and among Syrians in neighboring countries.
In addition to the fact that women themselves constitute a top priority for most human rights organizations, being considered as a “vulnerable group”, some women try to show they are there among management and administrative staff, even if the cases are not so many.
According to a study based on the results of an in-depth survey published this year (2017) under the title “Syrian Civil Society Organizations: Reality and Challenges,” 261 organizations out of the 748 that have been surveyed are concerned with women. Most of these organizations focus on psychological support, empowerment within the community, as well as teaching women professions and crafts, and provide awareness and education services on women’s rights in society.
However, the same report indicates that the representation of women, particularly in organizations operating in opposition areas, is “very low”, which raises questions about how serious these organizations are in defending the women cause.
The low representation of women who are active in the field of human rights and civil action makes it difficult to transfer their interesting and substantial issues to the mindset of organizations that have normally been established to serve them. This also places the workload on a small group of women who have taken on the challenge of social obstacles and community prejudices.
Widad Rahal believes that the change that these organizations can make in the structure of society and how it treats the woman cause and persistent human rights issues cannot occur “overnight,” but rather takes time and hard work.
She accuses the media of failing to cover the achievements that the organizations have realized in their campaigns for human rights, which prevents these experiences from reaching the public or providing inspiration for all.
After spending most of her time in administrative work within human rights organizations and field action, about two years ago, Widad Rahal pinned her hopes on a new plan, giving women the opportunity to participate in politics, which has for a long time been monopolized by men.
“At the beginning, we encountered a lot of difficulties in this field,” Rahal told a reporter of Enab Baladi in Idlib. She added “as a female, it will be very difficult for you to talk for the first time about this issue in public and internally within the organizations that are active in the community.”
However, the situation has changed after about eight months since the project started, as she confirmed. After some painstaking efforts, positive results began to appear, which gave her wings and encouraged her to carry on.
Although women are not absent from the Syrian political scene, their political and party representation is low compared to men, which is related to society’s view of women and the extent to which it can trust a female politician or a female activist in civil society.
Widad Rahal believes that the change she has been able to achieve in relation to human rights over the past nine years is a slight change and does not reflect her aspirations, but she believes that collective action and the solidarity of organizations shall definitely make a “vital transformation” over the coming years.
Behind Refugees.. There Are Women Who Stand up for Their rights
A major crisis has ensued out of the Syrians’ refugee movement to neighboring and distant countries, carrying with them so many wounds the remedy of which was nowhere to be found especially in those countries that have suffered economic, social, political and security burdens incurred by the “unprecedented” flow of Syrians since 2011.
The five million Syrian refugees scattered in the east and west of the globe had to find male and female spokespersons in an attempt to convince the world to understand their concerns and to have people sympathize with them and feel the misery they were going through inside and outside the camps.
Several women have had their impact in subverting the prejudices that the refugees were subjected to, especially after their image deteriorated for one reason or another in such a way that it affected the reputation of some Syrians in host countries. This was mainly due to differences in cultures and customs, and so these women undertook the responsibility of communicating a positive image about refugees and defending their rights under international humanitarian law.
Enab Baladi focused on a number of these figures who are trying to defend the rights and lives of Syrian refugees.
Nibal Al-Alou…”Protection of women refugees is a priority”
“The fragility and vulnerability of Syrian women refugees in Lebanon has motivated me, in particular, to be their advocate and raise their awareness of their rights,” said Nibal al-Alou, a resident of the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, who is in charge of the Protection Unit at the Sabra and Shatila Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon.
Nibal, who is specialized in the “Protection of Women” unit, did not overlook defending the rights of the Syrian child, as well as the husband. However, as she told Enab Baladi, she devoted her time to women in Sabra and Shatila camp, for the war has caused the social roles inside the Syrian family to change and pushed women to take on new roles that were alien to them, she said.
The poor conditions of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, with more than one million Syrian refugees, have led civil society and human rights organizations to work in this context, where Syrians face many problems and obstacles, including the spread of unemployment and lack of legal protection in addition to the high cost of living in the neighboring country.
“It is necessary to raise awareness of the pressures and changes that have taken place in the Syrian family,” Nibal said. “Because they often turn into problematic issues between spouses, it may also be necessary to focus on how to deal with these pressures.”
Nibal al-Alou said that she noticed these significant consequences after she held several awareness and educational sessions with the Syrian female refugees in Lebanon. In these sessions, she urged Syrian women not to give in to the conditions of asylum and called on them to play effective roles in society despite the poor resources. She noted that some of them were able to start a new life after being desperate when they first came to the host community.
Nibal, who previously worked to support Iraqi women refugees in Syria, said that the most difficult ongoing challenge she faced is that she shares the same problems of loss and disability with Syrian women. She added “But these problems help me better understand the situation.”
Aya al-Jamali …To America with the “Forgotten” File of Detainees
Despite her efforts to defend the rights of Syrian refugees around the world, the Syrian activist Aya al-Jamali devoted much of her time to talking about the “forgotten” file, which is about the detainees and those forcibly disappeared in Syria’s prisons.
Aya, who is studying in the United States, took advantage of all the educational and human rights platforms she was able to participate in to talk about the suffering of the Syrians and demand that civilians be protected and the siege on Syrian cities be lifted, and she organized several demonstrations and sit-ins in this regard.
Aya, from Aleppo, was granted “Student Voice” award by the American University in Washington DC on November 18, 2008. According to what Aya said to Enab Baladi, she received this award for her efforts to take the issue of the Syrian revolution to the academic podium and gather different groups of students at the university around the cause.
During the ceremony, which has been organized by No Lost Generations group, Aya devoted part of her speech to speak about the movie “Syria, the Land of Fear” , in which she documented testimonies of former detainees in the regime’s prisons, who were students from Aleppo University and other areas of the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Aya stated “I tried to highlight, through my talk about the movie, the issue of detainees and all its aspects. I wanted to say that the fate of those captured in these prisons will remain unknown unless the international political and human rights forces take action to save them from the most severe kinds of tortures.”
The issue of the detainees in Syria remained the focal point of debate in international talks and conferences seeking a political solution, amid demands to neutralize it and keep it away from any political settlements.
In the absence of official figures, the Syrian Human Rights Network documented the existence of 117,000 Syrian detainees, with their names. However, it is estimated that the actual number exceeds 215,000, 99% of whom are captured in Syrian regime detention facilities.
Aya al-Jamali, aged 29, has addressed the issue of refugees and forced displaced citizens in the movie “Syria the Land of Fear” in order to convey a message, which indicated that “refugees did not choose asylums. No one can choose displacement. They were pushed to accept that either out of fear of arrests and security harassment, or because of war and the destruction that has plagued their homes and cities. ”
Aya, who has been active in the Peaceful Revolutionary movement within her city, considers that support for Syrians inside and outside Syria starts but should not stop with aid. She points out that what is most important is finding a solution to the problems that are fueling Syrians’ need for relief and material support.
“It is our responsibly to claim the rights of people who are unable to communicate with international community and the dead and detainees in the cellars, especially with the Western public opinion deserting the Syrian scene, thinking that ISIS is the problem not al-Assad.
She concluded saying that she will continue defending the rights of the oppressed in Syria as long as she is able to do so. She hopes that the Syrian voices in asylum countries would unite in order to better deliver the message and forward the file of detainees, refugees and war victims, including women and children, to the international community.
Medya Dheer… “Human rights action is a weapon against extremism”
Family background had provided the human rights activist Medya Dheer with a solid foundation on which she could later on rely to make a difference in the field of political action and human rights activism.
“Just like any other Syrian Kurds we got ourselves engaged into political action since we were kids because we belonged to families which are affiliated to different Kurdish Political organizations. As a result, the majority of Kurdish young men and women have been taught the values of democracy and human rights as the primary resources for political action.” Certainly, Medya was one of these.
Before the revolution, she worked as a teacher of English and contributed to the production of a Kurdish newspaper for a period of time. Therefore, she started to pay attention and focus on human rights issues, particularly the issues of women who were “suffering from triple persecution, twice by Syrian regime for being Kurdish Syrian opposition and a third time by society for being a woman.”
After the outbreak of the revolution, and in 2012, Medya joined the Kurdish bloc within the Syrian National Council, but her work did not last more than a year and then she moved to participate in the establishment of the organization “Fraternity Foundation for Human Rights,” which aims at consolidating the values of citizenship regardless of political affiliation and documenting human rights violations.
Medya has given attention to Syrian women and children at home, in camps and countries of asylum. Its Fraternity organization has also sought to promote craftsmen and ordinary workers awareness of their rights, for they are “the most marginalized civil and human rights group.”
Medya believes that the activities of Fraternity organization made a difference through providing international investigations with valuable reports of the war crimes committed in Syria, particularly by ISIS.
“We are proud that we have made a quantum leap by preparing human rights trainers in Syria with significant international expertise after they have been professionally trained over the past years,” said Medya to Enab Baladi. She added “we hope to start working in more specialized human rights areas and move on to a more professional stage in the future.”
Female Activist Is the Victim of the Male Activist
Most people are unaware of the social situation of female activists in Syria. The common stereotypical image they are associated with is that they vowed themselves for their cause and that their work almost occupies most of their time, until it takes total control of their lives. People then consider they cannot live unless they work.
The activist starts her day with a busy schedule, moves quickly between her tasks and has a lot of responsibilities. She even forgets herself in the midst of a busy day, especially in Syria, where responsibilities are doubled. She has to secure living under war and siege compelling conditions; hold herself responsible for securing her family’s needs and prove herself in the labor market, thus doubling working hours and increasing pressure.
Here, the way our communities view this dedicated woman is schizophrenic. The community is proud of her and her opinion and resorts to her to accomplish difficult tasks. However, at the same time, it neglects that she is a human being and that her life possesses another side, which is far away from work. This is simply manifested through the reluctance of men, who come from different intellectual backgrounds, to marry female activists, and they choose to marry future housewives instead.
In case we conducted a simple survey of male activists in the revolution, we can find that a large proportion of them prefer to marry future housewives or females having no revolutionary activity. Therefore, the rate of married female activists has significantly decreased, and although their involvement in revolutionary and social activism was intended to change society for the better, they turned out to be victims of this community.
Media coverage does not address or discuss this angle. Coverage is limited to searching for female activists’ contributions and the difficulties they face. However, through my work and knowledge of many of them, I can tell that the number of married female activists in Syria does not exceed the minimum number, although they have great educational and professional qualifications and have the ability to build a family and assume its responsibilities.
As the current circumstances led the community to shut its shell, the activist became one way or another, a victim. She is the victim of the male activist before being the victim of community, who has consumed her strength and energy and denied her the right to build her own family.
Syrian Organizations Defending Human Rights
With the beginning of the peaceful movement against the regime in Syria in 2011, local human rights organizations have been active through monitoring and documenting violations due to increasing number of law violations in Syria.
In spite of the limited resources and constraints that these institutions have faced, the poor expertise, the fluctuation of the financial support provided and the security harassments and restrictions, these organizations managed to leave a mark in the field of human rights, and to speak in international occasions on behalf of war victims in Syria.
However, its attempts to hold war criminals and human rights violators accountable in Syria are still under investigation, and the realization of those demands, which are constantly hampered by international failure to act, still has to wait.
Enab Baladi spotted a sample of those organizations operating inside and outside Syria, in the field of human rights defense and the rights of Syrians exclusively.
Syrians for Truth and Justice
Founded in 2015 in the United States of America, Syrians for Truth has started as an individual initiative to publish a book containing arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearance survivor stories in Syria.
The idea of documenting the stories of the detainees has been expanded into a book, to be embodied then into a specialized institution founded by a group of Syrian activists, including Bassam al-Ahmad, Hani Zitani, Sima Nassar and others.
Syria for Truth and Justice defines itself as “an independent, non-governmental and non-profit Syrian institution working for Syria, in which all citizens enjoy dignity, justice and equal human rights.”
Since 2015, the organization has launched several campaigns inside and outside Syria, in which it documented violations against Syrians, raised advocacy issues in international forums and tried to highlight the issue of detainees, which the international community has ignored in the political negotiations with al-Assad regime.
Syrian Institute for Justice
The Syrian Institute for Justice was established inside Syria, with the start of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement in 2011, by a group of Kurdish lawyers and academics who are specialized in human rights protection.
The Institute publishes periodic reports through which it monitors and documents human rights violations by any of the conflicting parties in Syria. Its activity focuses on supporting the rapprochement between Arabs and Kurds, especially in the city of Aleppo, which contains people from both sides.
The Syrian Institute for Justice has also devoted a section of its activity to document abuses linked to sex, including rape. It has also organized online training courses related to this matter on the development of safe, ethical and effective interviews with survivors of sexual abuse, in partnership with Witness Organization.
Syrian Center for Human Rights Studies
The Syrian Center for Studies and Human Rights was founded in 2013 by a group of Syrian lawyers, including Diab al-Barhou, Youssef Houran and Mothanna Nasser. The Center is based in Aleppo, while it seeks to open other branches in the rest of Syria.
The Syrian Center focuses on all the periodic reports and researches it issues on the matter of “civil peace and transitional justice.” Moreover, like other organizations, it documents violations against the Syrians’ rights, in addition to preparing and working on the success of the next phase to oust the “illegal” regime in Syria.
Violations Documentation Center in Syria
The Violations Documentation Center in Syria was established in June 2011 to document the abuses, arrests and torture of civilians during the peaceful protests that accompanied the start of the Syrian revolution.
After the peaceful Syrian revolution turned into an armed battle, its field of action has expanded to include monitoring all the crimes and massacres that were committed against the Syrians, as well as calling on the international community to protect those rights and fortify the Syrians’ awareness of it.
The Center also assumed responsibility for documenting the names of the war victims, including those who were dead, detained, missing, abducted and forcibly disappeared in prisons.
The Violations Documentation Center in Syria was a branch of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression before becoming an independent center by its own as a result of the raid on its office in Damascus by the Syrian security forces and the arrest of 16 founding staff members, including activist Mazen Darwish, female lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, female activist Samira Khalil and the two activists Nadhem and Wael Hammad.
In 2015, the Center’s Board of Directors appointed Hussam al-Qatlabi as CEO who would be responsible for the strategic direction of the Violations Documentation Center and its daily operational tasks.
Human Rights Organization in Syria – MAF
The Syrian Kurdish MAF organization has been active before the Syrian revolution, and since its establishment in 2004, it has worked on spreading awareness of human rights through seminars and awareness workshops especially by introducing international treaties and conventions.
With the increase of violations against Syrians after 2011, the organization has cooperated with six Syrian human rights organizations to document these violations. In late 2013, it has also established the Syrian Federation for Human Rights Organizations and Bodies in Syria, in partnership with more than 40 human rights organizations and bodies, headed by activist Muhammad Khalil Ayub.
Fraternity Foundation for Human Rights
The Fraternity Foundation was launched in early 2013 with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and under the auspices of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). It is one of the first civil society organizations to be officially opened in Al-Hasakah, then in Qamishli and Ras al-Ayn.
The organization has been specialized in spreading the culture of human rights, monitoring the violations committed against them, and exposing the war crimes committed in the conflict areas in the Middle East in general and inside Syria in particular, refusing that the Syrian conflict be turned from a peaceful to an armed one.
The organization, which is run by female activist Medya Dheer, seeks to empower women at the level of human rights, profession and politics, promote the protection of children’s rights, and promote the refugees’ integration in hosting communities.
Kurdish Committee for Human Rights – Al-Rasid
Al-Rasid defines itself as an “independent civil voluntary group, which works on promoting the culture of human rights, monitoring violations against these rights, and promoting political, legal and social action to defend these rights through peaceful means in accordance with international standards.”
It was founded by a group of Kurdish lawyers, among them the female Advocate Avin Mahmoud, Radeef Mustafa, Radwan Sido, Masoud Kasso and others. Its Board of Directors is currently headed by lawyer Suleiman Ismail.
Hurras (Guardians) Network
Hurras Network was launched as a specialized organization in the field of psychosocial support and child protection. It started its activities in January 2012 in Darya, near the Syrian capital Damascus, in order to raise awareness about child Rights and to protect children’s interests in society.
Hurras Network has participated in several campaigns that condemned the violations against the Syrians’ rights and had an important role in the campaigns against Syrians’ forced displacement from their cities and villages by the Syrian regime.
The network has been active in all the opposition-controlled areas. It has a branch in the Syrian city of Gaziantep and is run by a group of activists and child psychosocial support specialists, including Ahmed Arafat and Riad Al-Najm.
Syrian Center for Statistics and Research
The Syrian Center for Statistics and Research launched its survey and statistical activities in August 2011 under a license from the German High Administrative Court in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. It is specialized in monitoring the changes that have taken place in the Syrian society in order to convey a vibrant image to the outside world.
The Center includes more than 120 staff members including researchers and field information collectors who are working on documenting numbers and names of the Syrian war’s victims, in partnership with the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS) and the Free Syrian Lawyers Union.
Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR)
Since it was established in June 2011, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has been issuing monthly reports documenting violations against the Syrian people. It is considered to be a highly credible source of statistics on the number of killed, detained and forcibly disappeared people in Syria. The international community considers it as a “neutral” network.
It is a member of the International Coalition for The Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) and a member of EuroMed Rights and collaborates with OHCHR, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, and other human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
During its participation in international forums, the SNHR, which is run by Fadel Shakfeh, has always called to prosecute those who are responsible for war crimes and violations against Syrians by the conflicting parties in Syria.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR)
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was founded in 2006 by activist Rami Abdulrahman. The Observatory works on documenting human rights violations in Syria through periodic reports it issues and disseminates on a broad human rights and media level.
The London-based Observatory condemns all the conflicting parties in Syria which are causing civilian casualties. It has also become a statistical source for many media agencies and news websites covering the Syrian issue.
Chemical Violations Documentation Center of Syria (CVDCS)
The Chemical Violations Documentation Center of Syria was established in 2012 to document the use of internationally banned weapons in Syria, including chemical gases, as well as documenting the number of victims of these weapons. It is currently run by Eng. Ayman al-Sayed Daghim.
The CVDCS has long been condemning the Syrian regime and holding it responsible for using chemical weapons to bomb the opposition-factions-controlled areas. It has also put forward internationally-used files and numbers to call on the international community to not ignore the chemical massacres that are committed in Syria and to hold those responsible accountable.
Syria Justice & Accountability Centre
The Syria Justice & Accountability Centre was first suggested at the second meeting of Friends of Syria Group, which was held in Istanbul in April 2012, after acknowledging the need for “an independent and multilateral support” institution to respond to human rights violations and war crimes reports in Syria.
The Washington-based Center works on ensuring the documentation of human rights violations in Syria, and keeping these files to use them in the political transition and in holding the “war criminals” accountable.
The Center is run by a group of Syrian lawyers and human rights activists, including lawyer Laila Alodaat, Habib Nassar, Nael Girgis, Salam Kawakibi and others.
The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression was founded in 2004 by Syrian activist Mazen Darwish, to monitor the media and freedom of expression situation in Syria. The activist faced restrictions by the Syrian intelligence, which closed the Center’s office in 2005 and 2009.
After the Syrian revolution, the Center, which supported peaceful protests against Assad’s regime, increased its activities and issued important series of reports that documented violations against freedom of expression in Syria. The Center subsequently became a consultative member of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.
In November 2011, Mazen Darwish won the 2011 Roland Berger Prize for Human Dignity, as founder of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.
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