Women’s Health in Syria: An American Imperative
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, hospitals and health-care workers have been actively targeted as a means of breaking the will of the opposition. The perpetration of crimes of war on innocent civilians in Syria is anything but news.
What is news is that the regime and its proxies seem to be attacking women’s healthcare in particular. The news site “Syria Deeply” has gathered data and mapped attacks on facilities that provide maternity and OB/GYN services. Between 2011-2016, there were at least 320 documented attacks against facilities providing medical care for women. With these attacks — coupled with a coordinated campaign of gender-based sexual violence — the regime has undertaken a practice that is unimaginably barbaric, but effective. If we want to build the civil society that will serve as an alternative to a dictatorship, we must ensure that this war on women does not succeed. We must help provide women in Syria with access to healthcare.
In rebel-held areas, the regime has destroyed nearly all maternity wards, forcing women to give birth in unsanitary conditions or, worse yet, in the midst of violent attacks, under fire. Even in the rare cases where women can safely give birth, there is no access to basic preventative vaccines for their newborns. Due to widespread malnutrition, the ability of mothers to breastfeed has been greatly diminished and, with limited access to clean water, formula feeding is unsafe if not impossible.
Women’s preventative care in Syria has all but vanished. Basics like mammograms and cervical cancer screenings are nonexistent. Few female medical professionals remain in Syria, making care for observant Muslims and all female patients much more difficult. Even when basic medical supplies are in acute shortage. Everything from soap to proper lab equipment are nowhere to be found in the places they are needed the most.
As critical as they are, the importance of these issues extends beyond our basic shared humanity. The decimation of women’s care is part of an active effort to eliminate civil society, and, with it, alternatives to the rule of the regime and its proxies. Decades of academic research have shown that women are critical to building and maintaining civil society. Studies show women are more adept at building coalitions and turning down the temperature at acrimonious meetings. It is also women who are more likely to bring up — and address — the second-order effects of war, such as disease and mass displacement.
Further, women have historically fostered peace. They are more able to break the tit-for-tat “conflict trap” and lower the risk of conflict relapse. It was, for instance, the female-led “Peace People” whose protests halted a convulsion of violence during the conflict in Northern Ireland, and women have lowered the temperature at acrimonious peace negotiations in South Africa and Somalia, among many others. Notably, peace agreements are 35% more likely to last longer than 15 years if women are part of the negotiated settlement.
Empowered women foster, maintain and enhance civil society structures — which represent an alternative to dictatorship, and thus a threat, to oppressive regimes. As long as women are desperately scrambling to feed their children or receive basic medical care, however, this regime increases the likelihood that it will emerge as the only source of bringing order to the chaos and destruction it has created.
To be clear, the current interplay of international interests in Syria means that the crisis is nowhere near peace negotiations. But, by addressing women’s healthcare, we would be assisting those who can contribute to preserving and building upon the civil structure. The regime’s strategy of destroying women’s healthcare is not only a threat to the opposition — it also impedes the realization of U.S. objectives in the region.
Thus, one of the most effective ways we can help support basic civil society in Syria is to help address the critical shortage of women’s health supplies through organizations such as the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, which has delivered over $125 million in aid to internally-displaced and other needy Syrians in the past two years, and helped construct a maternity hospital.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights puts the price tag for the humanitarian aid needed in Syria at nearly $8 billion. Providing relief that specifically targets the needs of women is essential.
If Americans demand policymakers focus on the strategic oppression of women in Syria, policymakers will listen. With a record number of women now in the House of Representatives, this is the time to press forward. Supporting women’s health in Syria is the best investment in stability and national security our policymakers will ever have the chance to make.
Dr. Georgette Bennett is the Founder of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, where Mr. Gross serves as Executive Director.
This article was originally published in The Hill on April 9th, 2019.
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