By Ammna Nasser,  STAND Canada Blog Writer

Women are affected by war in a unique manner. Gender inequality is exacerbated during a conflict, an unfortunate reality currently facing Iraq and Syria. Today in Syria, women and children comprise a majority of refugees and internally displaced people. It is a key driver of poverty and vulnerability, leading to economic, political and social exclusion, worsening the status of women in a crisis. When displaced by war, women find it challenging to seek employment, adequate healthcare and are increasingly at risk of exploitation (including sexual) in the absence of legal protection, as reported by Al Jazeera News.

 However, we have learnt from carefully examining past conflicts how the participation of women in peace and security issues is pertinent in the promotion of peace and stability. Canadas foreign policy is focussed on development assistance to build resilience in Iraq and Syria, in particular through placing gender inequality and womens empowerment at the heart of their mission. In late August of this year, Justin Trudeau, during a meeting with His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan said, ‘…We are especially proud to support projects that serve Syrian refugees and Jordanians, while advancing the empowerment of women and girls…(Office of the Prime Minister, 2017).

The Government of Canada has described greater gender equality and womens empowerment in Iraq and Syria as an important end in itself. Beyond categorising women as victims of war(Government of Canada, 2017), Canadas foreign policy is focused on elevating womens position as both important decision-makers and agents of change, since research has revealed their pivotal role at a grass roots level in peace-building and rehabilitation. In Iraq, Canada has taken the initiative to support technical and vocational training for women to improve their income-earning potential. In Syria, Canada is helping women promote their autonomy through investing in livelihoods programming geared towards female-headed households. However, is such action sufficient to achieve gender inclusivity through development assistance in Iraq and Syria?

On October 16th an open letter addressed to Permanent Representatives to the U.N, which comprised a variety of Canadian non-governmental signatories, questioned the silence noted from member states committed to development assistance across regions plagued by deep-seated conflict. The letter brought to light how the National Action Plan on 1325 (for the inclusion of women in the process of peace building, peace keeping and conflict resolution) has remained under-funded and unimplemented in Iraq. It also discussed womens exclusion from Syria and Iraqs reconciliation and reconstruction process, despite their imperative role in peace work at a local level. Lastly, a plethora of war crimes, which can be equated to genocide, are being committed against women and LGBTQ groups, who are persecuted for defying traditionally prescribed gender roles.

Beyond an approval for the Women, Peace and Security agenda on paper, the letter demanded for an increase in political and financial action needed to criticize national developments that undermine the rights and status of women in Iraq and Syria; for example, calling for an end to gender related budget cuts in both countries. While Canada has come a long way in placing women’s rights at the core of their development assistance mission in the region, they have fallen short of meeting the challenges outlined in the open letter addressed to the UN. Existing financial support must be complimented by substantial foreign diplomatic effort to introduce sustainable approaches to long term peace and security.

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