Spotlight on Syria's female White Helmets
It is often said that conflicts have unsung heroes. In Syria, these are most certainly local humanitarian aid workers, who literally put their lives on the line to help their people. These workers are even less visible when they are women, due to a mix of social stereotypes and the limitations they face, especially in conservative communities. Moreover, they also face additional security threats from those opposed to having women on the humanitarian frontlines.
With International Women's Day fresh in our minds, it is worth amplifying their voices and shining a light on their work. These women should no longer remain in the shadows; they deserve to have their work and dedication recognised.
The conflict in Syria has produced many heroes and heroines. One of the better-known ones is the Syria Civil Defence, better known as the White Helmets who have been working inside Syria since 2013, and have reportedly rescued 114,000 lives. One of the lesser-known facts about them however is their focus on engaging women in their programmes and their own ranks.
The work on the ground
Muzna Dreid, Liaison Officer of the White Helmets based in Canada, spoke to me via Skype at the end of February. She explained their multifaceted civilian work in Syria: "In reality, the White Helmets have a lot of programmes in addition to the heroic videos you have seen before, where bodies are being pulled from the rubble – so-called search and rescue missions. These include de-mining the soil, women's centres, as well as an app that tracks warplanes. We also work on accountability as we collect and provide soil and genetic samples from attack sites."
The app that tracks plane movements collects data from Assad's and Russia's air bases. It then sends warnings about anticipated bombardments. This helps civilians to get to safety, if that is at all possible in Idlib, where there are almost no cellars and certainly no underground bunkers.
Women in helmets
A recent development in the work of the White Helmets is the increasing involvement of women. In addition to the 31 centres inside Syria that primarily provide services to women and children, especially concerning maternity and reproductive health, they run awareness sessions about non-explosive ordnance and mines. More and more women are joining, and currently there are 2,800 male and 231 female White Helmets.
This is a point of pride for Muzna, who explains: "Last year, we succeeded in changing our internal rules to include a women's quota on the board, and to ensure that our women's centres are run exclusively by female directors." This development is encouraging, as these women also have access to different networks than their male colleagues, can provide medical care and raise awareness.
However, it's not all plain sailing for these women. "Female White Helmets face particular challenges, because this type of work is seen as a man's work. It is highly dangerous and stressful, so it is not seen as suitable for women," Muzna concedes. Nonetheless, the women persist and carry out their activities. When there are emergencies they participate in search and rescue missions, but also more generally conduct awareness-raising activities.