Women Write Better Constitutions
If you want to form a more perfect union, in Syria or elsewhere, you can’t rely on men.
Even as fighting rages in Eastern Ghouta, Syrians on different sides of the conflict are trying to come together to write a new constitution. The vast majority of those involved in these negotiations are men. But fresh research tells us why their chances of success will be far greater if the drafting process includes Syria’s women.
The agreement to write a new founding pact emerged from the latest round of Syrian peace talks held in the Russian resort town of Sochi on Jan. 30, which brought together the United Nations, Russia, and mostly pro-Bashar al-Assad Syrian delegates. The main Syrian opposition leader later agreed to cooperate on a new constitution, as long as the drafting is firmly anchored in the U.N.-led peace and transition process. Bargaining has now begun over the composition of the constitutional committee, which Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy to Syria, wants to assemble “while the iron is hot.”
Constitution-making is a frequent component of a peace or transition process: Seventy-five countries undertook significant constitutional reform in the wake of conflict or unrest between 1990 and 2015. A study published last week by the nonprofit Inclusive Security shows that for nations emerging from war, the process may be as important as the product. While the constitution provides a map for how power will be exercised in society, the drafters also open a path for civil dialogue. It’s an opportunity to build trust and recognize the inequalities and marginalization that may have contributed to conflict in the first place.
But one major group is consistently left out: Our research at Inclusive Security shows that only 1 in 5 constitution drafters in conflict settings is a woman. This is partly because the rules for electing or appointing a constitution-making body are typically established in the peace process — an even more male-dominated affair. Between 1992 and 2011, women made up just 9 percent of negotiators in peace processes, according to a study by U.N. Women.
This is especially unfortunate because research shows that an inclusive constitution-making process benefits the nation as a whole.
Across eight case studies, we found that when women do participate in constitutional processes, they consistently advance provisions for more equitable and inclusive societies. In Rwanda, for example, women in the constitutional commission worked with women in civil society and the women’s parliamentary caucus to secure a provision for a 30 percent quota for women in all decision-making bodies. Rwanda went on to achieve the highest rates of women in parliament in the world. An earlier study of 58 conflict-affected states between 1980 and 2003 published in the journal Civil Wars found that increases in women’s parliamentary representation significantly reduce the risk that a country will relapse into war.
The constitutional provisions for gender equality that women typically advocate matter for peace writ large. Drawing on the largest database on the status of women in the world, Texas A&M scholar Valerie Hudson has shown that gender equality is a greater predictor of peace than a country’s wealth, level of democracy, or predominant religion.
Inclusive Security’s new research also reveals that when women’s organizations engage with the constitutional process, they repeatedly broaden societal participation, helping cement the social contract. In South Africa, for instance, the Women’s National Coalition reached out to an estimated 2 million women across racial, cultural, and linguistic divides to create a charter of priorities for the constitution. Most of these priorities were ultimately reflected in the 1996 text. While male-dominated groups also conducted outreach, across the cases women’s groups seemed to specialize in raising awareness about the constitutional process and soliciting inputs from sections of society that otherwise may have been overlooked.
The data suggests that women’s participation in constitution-making has been increasing in the post-Cold War era: from an average 13 percent between 1990 and 1995 to 24 percent between 2010 and 2015. And the parties at the Syrian negotiations in Sochi agreed, in theory, that the constitutional committee should include women. In fact, in their final statement they committed to at least 30 percent women in decision-making structures relating to the political settlement of the Syrian conflict.
But when Russia, Turkey, and Iran (which are allied with various Syrian parties to the conflict) then drafted a list of nominees for this new decision-making body, it contained just 16 women’s names out of 168, according to Rajaa Altalli, the founder of the Syrian nonprofit Center for Civil Society and Democracy. “I believe a big advocacy effort needs to happen with the different countries [that have influence] and with the U.N. to secure 30 percent women’s participation,” Altalli says.
Syrian women have been lobbying for years to get access to the peace process. The constant answer has been, “Not now, later.” The images from Sochi showed the negotiations remain an obdurately male affair.
But the new constitutional committee presents an opportunity to correct course. “Later” should be now. Even amid pressure from all sides about who to include, the U.N. has leeway to bring more women into this new decision-making body: The parties in Sochi granted the U.N. authority over the selection procedure. The U.N. can draw from — but is not limited to — the male-dominated list of names from Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Syrian government has since questioned the U.N.’s authority to make selections. But its ally Russia stood by the Sochi outcome, circulating the final statement among members of the U.N. Security Council last week. Forward momentum now hinges on whether Russia will exert more pressure on the Syrian government to engage with the process and when both parties de-escalate their recent surge of violence on the ground. A legitimate constitutional process can only emerge from a secure, calm, and neutral environment, as U.N. special envoy de Mistura has reiterated.
Indeed, de Mistura has worked hard to bring the aberrant Russian-led talks back under U.N. auspices and connect it to the other agenda items in the Geneva negotiations, which include a broader political transition and elections. The 30 percent quota for women was among the 12 principles he developed last year in consultation with the Syrian government and opposition in Geneva — and the parties at Sochi reproduced all 12 tenets in their final agreement while handing the process back over to the U.N. In retaking the reins, the world body will now have to make its commitments to gender equality a reality.
Whatever the timing, there is no shortage of qualified female lawyers, constitutional experts, and peacebuilding practitioners to draw from — even if the men involved don’t need to meet this bar. The civil society group Syrian Women for Democracy has already drafted gender-sensitive constitutional principles, which focus on fair representation and equality of opportunity for women and men, as well as all ethnic, cultural, and religious groups. The Syrian Women’s Political Movement has developed an equitable and inclusive vision for the transitional phase and the new constitutional order.
After seven years of suffering in Syria, it’s time to try a different approach. The evidence suggests that an inclusive one is more likely to pave a pathway to peace for all.