On November 26, 2021, a virtual event on the impact of chemical weapons attacks on women in Syria was jointly organized by Germany and Canada. It was held on the sidelines of the 26th Conference of the States Parties and on the occasion of the Day of Remembrance for All Victims of Chemical Warfare, with the aim to raise awareness on the impact of chemical weapons attacks on individuals and most especially on women and children. Gudrun Lingner, Germany's Ambassador to the OPCW, and Canadian Ambassador Lisa Helfand opened the event by emphasizing the importance of making the voices of affected women heard. Women and children are much more likely to be victims of chemical weapons attacks in the Syrian civil war than men, and the consequences for their families are severe. Attacks on women and children are also often the last straw that breaks the camel's back and trigger the families’ decision to leave their homes. “There is an undeniable link between chemical weapons use and relocation” said Ambassador Lingner who also stressed in her opening remarks that we must not close our eyes to the continuing suffering in Syria. Chemical weapons use in Syria challenged the international community and the OPCW to insist on compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, so that we can move towards our goal of a world free of chemical weapons, she said.
Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, founder and Executive Director of the International Civil Society Action Network, moderated the event, which focused on Syrian women who have survived chemical weapons attacks. Two women shared – through audio-visual testimonies – their moving and at the same time shocking stories with the audience and asked not to forget. They explained what it means to endure a chemical weapons attack and how their lives never were the same afterwards. For example, Umm Mahmoud, who fell victim to a chemical weapons attack in 2014, described how this event became a turning point in her family's life: While she had previously been determined for years to stay with her family in her hometown of Kafr Zayta during the civil war, the chemical weapons attack was a turning point: she decided with a heavy heart to move to a refugee camp, feeling she could no longer expose her children to such danger. The unpredictability and insidiousness of a chemical weapons attack is also evident in a dilemma that confronts victims of attacks with an insurmountable choice: Do they seek shelter in the basement from the bombardment to protect themselves from conventional bombs and debris, or do they climb to the roof to escape the released descending chlorine gas?
Umm Mahmoud, after the toxic gas attack and in the course of the improvised medical treatment that followed, was separated from her children in such a chaotic situation. For what felt like an eternity, she did not know whether they were still alive. A traumatic experience for Umm Mahmoud was also the time she spent in an intensive care unit in Turkey after the chemical weapons attack, where her neighbour from Kafr Zayta died as a result of the toxic chemicals. After these grievous and far-reaching events related to the attack, it was clear to Umm Mahmoud that she could no longer bear such a huge risk and that she had to leave her home with her family after years of perseverance.
Umm Mahmoud's story, as well as the testimony of another witness, are scientifically backed by the study “The Last Straw: How Chemical Weapons Impact Women and Break Communities,” presented to the audience by Inji El Bakry of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi). Both witnesses described how they had to wait a long time until first aid reached them after the chemical weapons attacks and that it was not appropriate to their particular medical needs. According to GPPi's findings, this problem unfortunately occurs most of the times after toxic gas attacks in Syria. Inji El Bakry outlined that women face a much higher probability being affected by chemical weapons attacks and suffer from increased long-term physical as well as psychological stress. Due to cultural barriers, female victims of such attacks also waited longer for medical care after a chemical weapons attack since the predominantly male medical workers are biased towards undressing female victims and rinsing them with water. In addition, pregnant women have suffered from medical complications after chemical weapons attacks, and unproportionally high long-term consequences for women's fertility were also recorded.
Women have a central role in Syrian society. They are the ones who hold families and communities together and bear great burdens in everyday life. At the same time, however, women are extremely vulnerable, especially with regard to chemical weapons attacks, as these attacks often occur behind the battle lines, exactly where women stay, together with children and the elderly. The perpetrators target them intentionally to increase the impact of the attacks. As Inji El Bakry put it, “When you attack women, you hit the core of communities and undermine the resilience of an entire society.”
GPPi is a Berlin-based think tank that has conducted extensive research on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. For example, in addition to “The Last Straw,” published in February 2021, studies published include “Nowhere to Hide: The Logic of Chemical Weapons Use in Syria” and “Munitions Typology: Chemical Weapons Deployed in the Syrian War.” GPPi's work and research is highly relevant and valuable to the OPCW. It is therefore all the more regrettable that individual States Parties have prevented GPPi from participating in this year's Conference of the States Parties.
The link to the recording of the virtual event can be found here.