Women in the Yemeni war

Summary: Yemen’s women bear the brunt of the ongoing war yet are granted only token representation and are largely ignored in UN peace efforts, while being exploited and abused by the various Yemeni factions fighting for dominance.

We thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for nearly 15 years, and writes about the country’s political, social and economic issues. Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book “Yemen in Crisis: the Road to War”, published by Verso in 2019, is a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it. Her most recent Arab Digest podcast on the Yemen situation is available here.

Anyone observing the Yemeni formal political spectrum might think that all Yemenis are male: there is not a single woman in the de facto Houthi government, the internationally recognised (IRG) one, or the Parliament (the only woman parliamentarian died in 2015).  While the General People’s Congress (GPC), Islah and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) all have a few women in their formal broader leadership committees, their voices are rarely heard in public and they have little influence. The latest IRG formed in December 2020 following the Riyadh agreement, caused a national and international outcry as being the first without a single woman minister; even under Saleh’s presidency there was always one woman in charge of a ministry perceived as ‘suitable’ for women, as largely powerless (usually human rights or social affairs).

Thanks to UN and international studies demonstrating that peace is best achieved with significant female inputs in negotiations, and UNSC resolution 1325, calling for increased female participation in political decision-making and peace seeking, UN Special Envoys must involve women in their activities: in 2015, the second SE Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, assisted by UN Women, set up the ‘Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security’, a consultative mechanism including prominent women from various walks of life. His successor, Martin Griffiths, transformed it into the eight member Women’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG) whom he occasionally consulted. Invited to the Stockholm talks in 2018, they were kept out of the formal negotiations and prevented from interacting formally with either national team. They were present merely as ‘tokens’ to satisfy international public opinion and UN requirements, rather than treated as meaningful partners. The current deplorable status of the Stockholm agreement might possibly have been avoided if women’s voices had been heard.

Meanwhile, in daily life, women lead a number of important civil society organisations: Mwatana, the respected human rights organisation and the Abductees Mothers Association are probably the most famous internationally known examples, the latter having achieved numerous prison releases throughout the country, but there are plenty of others. Locally, women lead and are active members of community-based organisations defending women’s rights, protecting women from abuse, and engaging in humanitarian work. They arrange local cease fires, collect and distribute food and other basic necessities, work to reduce and prevent abuse, search for income generating activities and plenty more.

Women face innumerable problems and difficulties, most of them endemic for decades but exacerbated by the war. Gender-based violence is one of them and has intensified due to the psychological and social stresses of the war: reduced male employment has worsened poverty, so men feel powerless and frustrated, factors which are known to increase domestic violence against women and children. Poverty and hunger are forcing more women into all kinds of work to support their families; much employment is welcome and increases their negotiating power within the household. The downside is that this situation can also cause male resentment and increase the risk of abuse, a problem worsened in the lawless atmosphere prevailing mainly in the non-Houthi controlled areas.

Many women, including many displaced, are now de facto heads of households, when men are fighting or have migrated in search of work. In addition to the practical difficulties of survival in a war situation, the last few years have also seen massive displacement and climate disasters, all of which have a worse impact on women than on men, and force them to take more responsibility for the care and survival both of children and of elderly relatives. They have to deal with these challenges in a negative local political context.

The political and administrative environments throughout Yemen are extremely hostile to women’s initiatives and to women taking prominent visible roles, or even to what most of us elsewhere in the world consider to be no more than mere normality. In the non-Houthi areas, the absence of law enforcement, a strong patriarchal culture, decades of policies privileging men combine to worsen women’s living conditions. Throughout the country, activist women are particularly liable to baseless systematic additional allegations of prostitution, regardless of evidence. These have a lasting negative impact in the country’s conservative society as they often lead to women being disowned by their families which affects their ability to work. Imprisoned women thus often find themselves homeless on release.

Women who have been kidnapped or disappeared in Aden, Yemen

In the areas under Southern Transitional Council (STC) influence, particularly in Aden, kidnappings, illegal imprisonment and murders of women are rife, whether under political pretexts or otherwise, mostly perpetrated by local UAE-supported militias. In addition, constraints on women’s movement and freedom come both from the fear created by general lawlessness and insecurity and from some official regulations limiting women’s activities, such as those preventing women from registering in a hotel without an accompanying male relative. In Marib, IRG forces have been holding and ill-treating women whom they accuse of being Houthis.

In Houthi-controlled areas, law enforcement exists but is oppressive to women. In addition to forcing women to be escorted by a male relative when outdoors, the Houthis also enforce retrograde Islamic fundamentalist behavioural norms (comparable to those prevailing earlier in Saudi Arabia); among other interventions, Houthis have held campaigns to forcibly remove abaya belts in shops, and closed coffee bars to prevent men and women mixing. One of the more outrageous recent incidents was the arrest and ill-treatment of a model for not wearing a head scarf; her court case has now started without the charges being made public. Under Houthi rule, all dissent is severely repressed; ill-treatment in detention, includes sexual abuse by officials including senior ones.  The latest publicised event was the sentencing to death earlier this month of a human rights activist and her husband under trumped up charges.

No senior politician has either taken into consideration the specific concerns of women or seriously tried to benefit from their possible contributions to dealing with the crisis. Despite this, women’s determination ensures that they actively seek peace and cope with their own and their families’ problems. International negotiators and Yemeni politicians alike might have a better chance of solving the country’s problems if they gave serious attention to women’s views.

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