Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Yemeni women are typically depicted either as heroic icons—such as the Arab region’s first woman Nobel Peace laureate, the journalist and peace activist Tawakkol Karman—or as suffering mothers living amid crushing poverty and violence. This limited frame excludes the everyday activism of Yemeni women who have been working for decades to expand women’s political power and shape their society, under often rapidly changing and difficult circumstances. In the context of the war that broke out in 2015 and the immense suffering it has produced, women have been war-makers and peace-makers alike. They also resist efforts to instrumentalize them for narrow political gains or to exclude them from the political processes that impact their lives.

Despite advances gained from women’s strong participation in the 2011 uprisings against the dictatorship of Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Salih, and despite the fact that they continue to play an essential role in the day-to-day survival of their communities, three years of war and militarization have resulted in a significant setback for Yemeni women and increased their marginalization from formal political and conflict-resolution channels. Yemeni women join others—including youth and the southern movement—who are absent from the negotiation table. Yet women are also doubly-excluded, given the gendered impact of the war and resultant humanitarian crisis. Indeed, women and girls have often borne the brunt of the collapsing social order, with its poverty, famine, disease and dislocation.

Gains and Losses

Prior to the war, Yemen consistently ranked among the least developed countries in the world. For its female population, this translated into widespread legal discrimination, illiteracy, child marriage and a high maternal mortality rate. Advances in women’s rights in modern Yemeni history, nevertheless, have far outpaced the political and economic rights of women in other parts of the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, despite the Gulf’s far greater wealth.

The experiences of Yemeni women, however, have been shaped and limited by the top-down manner in which rights were extended: first in South Yemen in 1967 and then under North Yemen’s 1970 republican constitution. When the two states unified in 1990, universal suffrage rights and civil rights in the associational sector were extended to all, although discriminatory provisions in the constitution remained and were eventually expanded via amendment. Despite (or perhaps because of) these discriminatory provisions, women have consistently used the political and civil rights they do enjoy to contribute to Yemen’s vibrant civil society and media sectors. They also have been on the frontlines campaigning against discrimination and political marginalization.

Women’s activism has taken many forms, from the political and academic activism of feminists like Raufa Hassan and Amal al-Basha to the Islamist activism of women like Karman. As the Yemeni state eroded during the 2000s under severe economic and social pressures brought about by Yemen’s adoption of neoliberal economic policies, women became increasingly active in addressing the needs of their communities.[1] Accounts of women’s activism during this period indicate that while women felt excluded or constrained by partisan political activism, their substantive demands for political inclusion and political and economic accountability mirrored those of many opposition parties.[2]

Women’s capacity for leadership in this landscape of opposition politics crystallized with the outbreak of Yemen’s 2011 uprising, when Karman earned widespread recognition. A campaigner for press freedom, especially through her organization, Women Journalists Without Chains, Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her leadership in the uprising.[3]

The most significant achievement for women in the transitional period following Salih’s departure from office came in 2013, when women fought for and obtained 30 percent of the seats in the country’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Women’s participation shaped the content of a number of the NDC’s declarations, while they worked to secure their representation moving forward by establishing a 30 percent quota in any new government body or institution established in the country. The National Board for Monitoring the NDC’s outcomes, for example, was established with 30 percent representation for women. Women also took part in the Constitution Drafting Committee, a first for Yemeni women despite both North and South Yemen having drafted and adopted several constitutions over the past decades. Although the new draft constitution did not address all forms of gender discrimination, it represented a step toward gender equality: The draft took up issues on which women had campaigned for years, such as a ban on child marriage and measures to ensure equal access for men and women to the justice system.

Yet these advances occurred at the same moment that the political system as a whole was descending into chaos and war. From the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in September 2014 to the Saudi-led military intervention in 2015, the formal political process ground to a halt. Militarization constituted a significant loss for women’s political voice and role in decision-making. Under conditions of war, the push for women’s representation has shifted from political institutions to diplomacy, reconstruction and transitional justice.

Gendered Impacts of War and Crisis

More than two thirds of Yemen’s 29 million people are currently facing what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.[4] Cholera and other infectious diseases continue to threaten millions of people amidst a collapsing health care system.[5] More than 10,000 people have been killed or wounded (according to a UN report in 2016, which surely underestimates this number), and numerous human rights organizations and UN investigators have documented various war crimes committed in the country by all warring parties.[6] By 2018, the UN Panel of Experts concluded that Yemen’s state “all but ceased to exist.”[7]

Women and children are typically the first casualties of such dire crises. The ongoing state of violence and bombing, and the blockade and siege that the Saudi-led coalition has imposed on Yemen, have had a devastating impact on maternal and children’s health. According to UNICEF, a child dies every ten minutes in Yemen because of preventable causes.[8] Millions are facing famine, yet the most alarming toll has been on women and girls of childbearing age.[9] Some estimates indicate that up to 3 million Yemeni women and girls are in acute need of humanitarian protection, with more than 1 million pregnant women suffering malnourishment.[10] Oxfam also reports an alarming rise in child marriage in Yemen, whereby “families marry off their daughters earlier to get money to pay for basic food items and at the same time reduce the daily cost of feeding the family.”[11] Child marriage compounds the risk of violence: The UN estimated that Yemeni women and girls saw an increase in gender-based violence of 63 percent in the first two years of the war.[12]

While Yemen’s tribal customs strongly condemn abducting women, the deteriorating security situation has begun to change this norm. Dozens of women have been victims of forced disappearance and unlawful detention, facing torture and mistreatment in Houthi rebel prisons.[13] As women’s lives have deteriorated, Yemen remains the lowest-ranking country in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Index, with a gender gap estimated today to be 90 percent or more.[14]

The impact of the war’s violence and social collapse on women may also be underreported, in part because of the opacity of the war itself. Death-toll numbers in Yemen are contradictory even across UN agencies, where some estimate that 10,000 people have been killed or wounded while others state that a child dies every ten minutes. The Washington Post has documented the obstacles facing the UN accounting and reporting of death tolls, strongly suggesting that UN estimates are undercounting the dead. As Kareem Fahim argues about death tolls, “It is rarely covered in the media because of restrictions and difficulties traveling there, but also because of a reticence about explaining the confounding array of actors and grievances attending a conflict in the poorest country in the Arab world.”[15]

Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, claims that female children in Yemen tend to be the most vulnerable and face the worst malnutrition.[16] While not counted as killed or wounded by combat, girls’ and women’s disproportionate exposure to humanitarian costs and gender-based violence must be considered a major component of the war in Yemen. It is in this context that Yemeni women are again carving out agency under unimaginable constraints, albeit not always in ways that expand (other) women’s agency.

Women in War and Peace

The war in Yemen is not something that is simply happening to Yemeni women, but rather a process in which women themselves are playing diverse roles across different regions of Yemen. In the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, for example, women have been recruited into the military. The Houthis have opened training camps for women, creating a women’s military unit known as Zeinabeyyat.[17] These female forces have been deployed to crack down against women in peaceful public protests over the past three years.[18] In the context of existing norms of gender segregation, especially in the North, these women soldiers are necessary for the detention and policing of other women and have thus been essential to Houthi rebel governance.

The southern regions of Yemen, by comparison, have not witnessed women taking up arms in the battle between the southern resistance forces and Houthi forces during or since the Houthi advance on Aden from March to July 2015. The strong presence of conservative salafi fighters in southern militias has meant that women are neither recruited nor welcome as fighters. In the frontline city of Taiz—a city in southwestern Yemen that has been under siege by Houthi forces since the war began in 2015 and is consequently perhaps the most lawless and dangerous place in Yemen[19]—women have joined a range of different resistance groups, including periodically fighting the Houthis. Reliable estimates of the number of female soldiers are hard to obtain, but military work is an attractive choice for Taizi women because few reliable sources of income exist since the Yemeni economy’s collapse. All warring parties prioritize salaries for their militants over the provision of public goods or services. Given the fact that more than a million civil servants in the Taiz region have not received their salaries for more than two years, women and men alike have joined military factions as a source of income, perpetuating the continuation of conflict.

It is a perverse irony that women have been recruited as military actors by many groups, but largely deprived of a political voice in how the conflict will end. Far from contributing to women’s political empowerment, the military recruitment of women is primarily aimed at the more efficient oppression of (other) women.

Meanwhile, women have been told during successive stages of the conflict to step aside whenever they attempted to participate politically. Women were excluded from the first peace talks in 2015, for example, leading a group of Yemeni politicians and activists to form the Women’s Pact for Peace and Security, a body endorsed by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (also known as UN Women).[20] The Women’s Pact has not achieved significant progress for women’s political participation, as they face reluctance from the Yemeni government officials to include women members in any political or peace process.

At the grassroots level, the Mothers of Abductees Association was formed by female relatives of thousands of forcibly disappeared men in different parts of Yemen, following the model of the Argentinian Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The Association works as a pressure group, raising awareness about the missing men and advocating for their release. Given the severe restrictions on journalists, these women have faced considerable difficulty in reaching an audience even in different parts of Yemen, let alone internationally.

Confronting Women’s Marginalization

The future of Yemen, not just the future of Yemeni women, will depend on how women—as individuals and in groups—fight for inclusion in any peace process designed to end the war. Smear campaigns against women in the media, the removal of women activists from peace talks and the undermining of the work of the Women’s Pact all suggest that Yemeni women are finding few allies, whether among Yemeni (male) political factions, foreign governments or international agencies across the (male) political spectrum. The only UN agency to offer consistent support for the Women’s Pact is UN Women, which itself plays no direct role in brokering peace.

As news spread in November 2018 that Sweden would host a new round of peace talks, the Swedish ambassador to the UN Security Council, Carl Skau, affirmed that Sweden was keen to see women participate and that Sweden would continue to support the Women’s Pact.[21] Yet when the talks took place in Stockholm in December 2018, the assistant secretary of the Yemeni Popular Nasserist Party, Rana Ghanem, was the only female member of any delegation. Research on women’s involvement with political parties in Yemen suggests that women’s exclusion is not a function of party ideology, as secular and Leftist parties rarely commit resources to the gender equality they espouse.

Indeed, during the past three rounds of peace talks, only three women have sat at the negotiation table.[22] “One of the reasons why I was able to be in the negotiations was my leading position in the Nasserist Party,” explains Ghanem, who has been involved with the Nasserist Party since 1991. “Yemeni political parties’ leadership has always been occupied by men and that has reflected itself in the lack of female representation in all these peace talks…This should not be an excuse, though, and the Yemeni government has to fulfil its promise of the 30 percent quota for women.” Ghanem argues that this commitment should be on coequal standing with the implementation of the NDC outcomes and UN Security Council Resolution 2216 as conditions for any agreement.[23]

Some sources of support for Yemeni women’s political activism do exist. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths (along with his predecessors, Jamal Ben Omar and Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed) has ensured women’s political participation in peacebuilding processes through creative ways, in order to apply UN Security Council Resolution 1325.[24] Women have worked closely with Griffiths’ team in a variety of advisory groups during the four rounds of Yemen peace talks in Kuwait, Geneva and Stockholm.

In the recent Stockholm peace talks, women members participated in three groups. Two groups were supported by the UN envoy’s office: the Women’s Technical Advisory Group comprising eight Yemeni women,[25] the Political Advisory Group consisting of three men and two women and the Women’s Pact for Peace and Security supported by UN Women. “All these groups have compensated for the lack of women’s political participation, as the warring parties refuse to include sufficient female representation at the negotiation table,” says one female member speaking on condition of anonymity. “Some in both parties make the excuse that the UNSC resolution 2216 didn’t mention women representation in the negotiation process, some think it’s still not the right time to include women at this stage of the conflict resolution process and some simply think that women are less competent in leadership.”

The setting of the 2018 Stockholm peace talks enabled these women’s groups to access and engage with the warring parties’ delegations. Jamila Raja, a Yemeni diplomat and a member of the Political Advisory Group, believes that the opportunity made her more knowledgeable than ever of the two sides’ needs and fears, and it gave her a sense of where to direct her influence. “Our work in the group focused on thinking of ways to find common ground between the parties, which was a challenging task. We weren’t at the negotiation table, but we managed to work on agreement proposals.”

Najat Joma’an, a professor of Management and Finance at Sanaa University and a member of the Women’s Pact, argues that much more needs to be done. “These groups are a good step, but we need an effective women’s political participation [process] and both parties have to be pressured to include women in their delegations.” Ghanem suggests that one way to do so is to compel inclusion of women members in these peace talks. “I think the UN Special Envoy could play a different role in his gender representation approach than how things look like right now,” explains Ghanem. “While each party is asked to bring 12 members, I think Griffiths could increase the number of members and ask the parties to bring, say, 16 or 17 members, and dedicate these new seats for women only, and if a party fails to bring the women, the seats shall remain empty.”

A stronger political will from the warring parties and the international community to address the political marginalization of women is necessary for increasing women’s political representation in Yemen’s conflict resolution process. Meanwhile, Yemeni women from all sides of the political spectrum keep playing a central role, within the available space. One lesson from the long history of women’s engagement and activism is that women will not sit by and passively wait to be invited in.


Endnotes

[1] Stacey Philbrick Yadav, “Does a Vote Equal a Voice: Women in Yemen,” Middle East Report Online, November 12, 2009.

[2] Stacey Philbrick Yadav and Janine A. Clark, “Disappointments and New Directions: Women, Partisanship, and the Regime in Yemen,” HAWWA 8/1 (2010).

[3] Stacey Philbrick Yadav, “Tawakkol Karman as Cause and Effect,” Middle East Report Online, October 21, 2011.

[4] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Yemen: Humanitarian Dashboard,” January–February 2018.

[5] World Health Organization, “Amidst the devastation of war in Yemen, efforts are underway to control cholera,” June 4, 2018.

[6] UN Human Rights Council, “Yemen: United Nations Experts point to possible war crimes by parties to the conflict,” August 28, 2018.

[7] UN Security Council, “Final Report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen,” January 26, 2018.

[8] UNICEF, “Health Workers in Yemen Reach More Than 306,000 People with Cholera Vaccines,” October 5, 2018.

[9] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Briefing to the Security Council on the Humanitarian Situation in Yemen,” January 9, 2019.

[10] UN Population Fund, “UNFPA Humanitarian Response in Yemen,” October 2017.

[11] Oxfam, “Yemen’s Shattered Food Economy and Its Desperate Toll on Women,” February 6, 2019.

[12] UN Population Fund, “Two-Year Conflict in Yemen Takes Heaviest Toll on Women and Girls,” March 27, 2017.

[13] Maggie Michael, “Yemeni Group: Houthi rebels hold, torture female detainees,” Associated Press, January 17, 2019.

[14] World Economic Forum, “The World Gender Gap Report” (2018).

[15] Kareem Fahim, “The Deadly War in Yemen Rages On, So Why Does the Death Toll Stand Still?” Washington Post, August 3, 2018.

[16] Interview with author, Washington DC, October 2018.

[17] “Yemen’s Houthis Recruit Women to Fight,” Middle East Monitor, May 9, 2017.

[18]Abdel Hadi Habtour, “Zeynebiyyat: The Face of Female Militias in Yemen,” Asharq alAwsat, January 15, 2018. [Arabic]

[19]  Afrah Nasser, “From the Front Lines of Yemen’s Lawless Taiz,” Atlantic Council MENA Source, February 23, 2018.

[20] UN in Yemen, “Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security (Tawafuq) Gathers in Amman,” March 8, 2018.

[21] Afrah Nasser, “Light at the end of the tunnel?” afrahnasser.blogspot.com, November 2, 2018.

[22] Yemeni Observatory for Human Rights, “The Impact of War and Conflict: Yemeni Women and Their Role in Peacebuilding” 2017. [Arabic]

[23] Ali Mahmood, “Yemen calls for sustained political pressure on Houthis ahead of proposed Geneva talks,” The National, August 3, 2018.

[24] UN Women, “Yemeni women call for their inclusion in peace efforts,” October 27, 2015.

[25] Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, “Full Text of the Special Envoy’s Remarks at the Opening of the Yemeni Political Consultations in Sweden,” December 6, 2018.

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