“What Invisibility Reveals: Reflections on Women’s Participation in Peace, Security, and Humanitarian Action in West Asia”

UN Women Expert Group Meeting: Expert Paper

Authored by: Hanan Tabbara

Categories: Statebuilding
Sub-Categories: Democratization and Political Participation, Nonviolent Resistance, Political Transitions
Country: USA
Region: South and Central Asia
Year: 2019
Citation: Hanan Tabbara, “‘What Invisibility Reveals: Reflections on Women’s Participation in Peace, Security, and Humanitarian Action in West Asia,’” Expert Paper, Sixty-Fourth Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 64) ‘Beijing +25: Current Context, Emerging Issues and Prospects for Gender Equality and Women’s Rights’ (New York, New York: UN Women, September 2019),

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Executive Summary

Since 2011, the Middle East and North Africa region has experienced significant social and political changes. From Tunisia to Bahrain, millions took to the streets demanding justice, dignity, and socio-economic and political reforms. From the onset, women were front and center in these mobilizations. Across the region, counter-revolutionary violence and further downward spiral into war have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, rolled back hard won victories, and unleashed unprecedented humanitarian crises, mass forced displacements, and brutal starvation and siege campaigns as well as rampant use of rape as a weapon of war. Today, and despite only constituting 5 per cent of the world’s population, the region accounts for nearly fifty per cent of the global humanitarian funding and is home to one third of the United Nations political and peacekeeping missions (ESCWA, 2017).

The transitions and unrest the region has experienced have had significant implications for women’s security, bodily integrity, and socio-economic and political rights as well as their meaningful participation in public life and in decision-making processes. From food insecurity and starvation, to limited access to essential services, including health and education, to increasing maternal mortality rates, women and girls are bearing the brunt of the violence. This is in addition to the staggering prevalence of violence against women, including sexual violence. Increased militarization and securitization have also had detrimental impacts on women and girls’ mobility and public presence, as they have also diminished the scope of action for civil society actors and women’s role within them.

While this has meant greater restrictions on women’s rights and opportunities, women have persisted in challenging the death and destruction around them, often at great cost to their lives (Naciri and Tabbara, 2018). Women have also demonstrated resilience against efforts to curb their rights and marginalize their public participation, including in peace, security, and humanitarian action. Across the region, women’s rights activists, civil society, and national women’s machineries were instrumental in propelling momentum around UNSCR 1325 and in the adoption of National Action Plans (ESCWA, 2017). To date, Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Lebanon have all drafted and endorsed 1325 National Action Plans, while in 2015, the League of Arab States adopted a Regional Action Plan.

In this paper, I draw on experiences in Syria, Yemen and Iraq to examine women’s participation in peace, security, and humanitarian action. The paper highlights women’s engagement at the local levels, where they have contributed to building “islands of temporary stability” (Swisspace et al, 2016). It also focuses attention on key challenges in promoting their meaningful participation at higher levels.1 I argue that women’s invisibility in formal processes cannot be explained by their alleged limited experience. Rather, there are significant barriers, including structural and institutional challenges, which curtail their meaningful2 participation.