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Marking Their Territory: Women’s ‘Conscience Convoy’ Heads To Syrian Border

Thousands mark International Women’s Day by travelling to Syrian border to protest the imprisonment, abuse of Syrian women

Over seven thousand women of fifty-five different nationalities set out Tuesday on a three-day bus journey from Istanbul, Turkey to the Syrian border town of Hatay, with the aim of distributing aid to female refugees on International Women’s Day. Backed by international NGOs such as the UK-based Forgotten Women and other human rights activists, the Conscience Convoy, or Vicdan Konvoyu in Turkish, embarked on the mission to protest the imprisonment and ill-treatment of Syrian women and females worldwide.

Upon arrival at the Syrian border, a press conference and ceremony was slated to be held, followed by three minutes of silence to commemorate Syrian women who perished in the war, in addition to those who have been imprisoned or persecuted. Thereafter, thousands of additional women will to join the group to hold a mass rally, accompanied by performances and speeches by Syrian women.

A spokesperson for Conscience Convoy told The Media Line that “this [project] is the result of an ongoing effort to help women who have survived rape and torture in Syrian regime prisons. We want to be the voice of those women. We found [International Women’s Day to be] an excellent opportunity for us to grab attention for this cause,” she elaborated. “We are celebrating women’s freedom and achievements but in the meantime, it is important to remember those who are imprisoned across the globe and particularly in Syria.”

According to Conscience Convoy, over 7,000 females in Syria are languishing in prison, where they have been “physically and mentally tortured, assaulted and sexually brutalized on a daily basis.” They are denied basic human rights, including access to lawyers and visits from family members.

“Our hope [on this International Women’s Day],” the spokesperson concluded, “is for stability and peace and that rape will no longer be used as a weapon of war.”

While riding on one of the 200 buses that make up the convoy, Lucy Rae, Communications Director for Forgotten Women, informed The Media Line that, “as an organization that has specialized in vulnerable women who are exposed to poverty and violence, we certainly felt we needed to be heavily involved.” She further explained that her organization has partnered with a Turkish NGO, Humanitarian Relief Foundation, in order to “arrange aid distribution for Syrian women every two days.

“With all the bombs happening in the Syrian war,” Rae stressed, “we forget about the women who are left behind and we are here to be their voices. We have these hidden women and our end goal is to spread the word and let them know that they are not [abandoned].”

When the convoy reaches its final destination, participants “will be meeting with [Syrian] women who were imprisoned, to hear their stories. Many women will be quite scared but they want us to come,” she said. “There are Bosnian women on the convoy, prisoners of war, who are desperate to meet the Syrian women and to tell them it will be okay.”

Indeed, two hundred Bosnian women are taking part in the initiative, according to a spokesman for Remembering Srebrenica, a British charity commemorating the July 1995 genocide of more than 8,000 Muslim Bosnians. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he told The Media Line that “the aims and objectives of Conscience Convoy have some commonalities with that of Remembering Srebrenica.”

But most of the women are participating not because they themselves are victims, but, rather, in order to highlight the plight of females across the globe.

Yvonne Ridley, a Scottish journalist and author, expressed concern to The Media Line for the thousands of detained Syrian women who are “being held and abused on a daily basis in Assad’s prisons along with around 400 children…in violation of international law.

“Today I heard testimony from a woman,” she continued, “who was imprisoned and she spoke about the unimaginable terrors she and her three children faced inside. It was heartbreaking.”

Conscience Convoy has gained a following on social media outlets like Twitter, providing a platform for activists to shine a spotlight on other oppressed communities, including the Yazidis. Speaking to The Media Line, Azzat Alsaleem urged the international community to “remember the 3,154 Yazidi kidnapped women and children [still] in [Islamic State] captivity on this International Women’s Day.”

Asoomii Jay, a Canadian women’s rights activist, created an online fund both to cover her expenses for the trip and to help fund relief efforts for Syrian women. “This is something that I have always wanted to be a part of,” she told The Media Line.

“Staying silent is choosing to side with the oppressors and so on this International Women’s Day it makes me tremendously proud to see women from all over the world unite, speak up and stand in solidarity for their sisters across the Middle East and globally.”

(Daniella P. Cohen is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)