Nathalia Quintiliano Ungierowicz e Adriana Erthal Abdenur
Rasha Jarhum is a Yemeni researcher and activist based in Lebanon, as well as a New Voices Aspen Fellow at the Aspen Institute. She has worked for more than 15 years with Human Rights and gender issues, in partnership with several organizations. She has also collaborated with the UN Special Envoy to Yemen on the inclusion of Yemeni women in the peace negotiations. Along with other names, such as Amal Bashar and Tawakul Kerman, Rasha is one of the activists working to improve women’s lives in Yemen.
1- Traditionally, what role(s) do women play in Yemeni society?
The roles of women in Yemen are largely influenced by a gender traditional paradigm where women are seen as caregivers and limited to the private sphere and men are breadwinners and dominate the public sphere. Generally, Yemen is last every year among the countries ranked in the annual Global Gender Gap Index produced by the World Economic Forum since its establishment in 2006. For instance, women’s political participation in Yemen generally was very limited during the last decades and deteriorated largely after the Unification between South and North Yemen in 1990. Women comprise less than 1% of the local councils and only one member out of 301 was female in Parliament, and she unfortunately passed away last year. This is a deterioration compared to the 80s in South Yemen (before unification), when women represented around 11% at the house of representatives and a woman was in the highest commanding political authority called the Higher People’s Council (a presidential council) where the chairperson of Women Union had a permanent chair.
2- How have these roles, including political participation, changed in the past two decades? What impact did the Arab Spring have on women in Yemen?
The uprising was led by women and youth. The Yemeni women challenged those gender stereotypes enforced on them and questioned the perception of lack of agency. They went out to the streets to demand change, filling the squares and marching against the regime. There were significant women figures who contributed to the uprising and transitional period in Yemen. Tawakul Kerman (Nobel peace laureate) mobilized the people and led the masses during the revolution of 2011, and Hooria Mashhour (my own mother) was appointed as spokesperson of the Revolution Council of Peaceful Forces.
When the transitional period was inaugurated and the national dialogue took place, Yemeni women secured a representation of nearly 30%, they led the process of the national dialogue. Amal Basha was the spokesperson for the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) preparatory committee, she helped shape the NDC’s national agenda and put issues related to women’s rights such as quota and safe minimum age of marriage at the heart of the dialogue.
Women also led teams of the main working groups of NDC including Arwa Othman who led the human rights and freedoms group, contributing to developing a historic package of rights and freedoms as part of the NDC outcomes, and Nabilah Alzoubair who led one of the most complicated issues related to Saada wars, a highly complicated patriarchal and tribal issue. She was also involved in the mediation committee that was formed to prevent the War from happening in 2014.
3- How has the conflict affected women, and what role(s) have they played — both in violence and in its prevention?
The humanitarian catastrophe that existed prior to the War has magnified. Now 82% of the people are estimated to be in dire need for humanitarian aid, with a greater impact on women and children. Gender based violence increased by 70% according to Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Women were targeted by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes at weddings, schools, and hospitals. Women were targeted by drone attacks conducted by the U.S. They were targeted by Houhis and Saleh armed groups and militia through indiscriminate shelling, and sniping, and mines. They were caught in cross fire of other armed groups including resistance fighters. There was a case of stoning of a woman by Qaeda in 2015 for accusations of adultery. Women were detained or assaulted, including religious minorities. Women politicians were subject to travel bans or confiscations of their homes. The War led to collapse of social services including health and education services, and interrupted or discontinued disbursing public salaries. Women are being forcefully starved due to the siege of Taiz and Hodiadah. Generally, there is a gender role reversal where, out of necessity, women becoming breadwinners and increasingly becoming heads of their families.
Unfortunately, the humanitarian response is lacking a gender lens and gender-based violence efforts received no funding allocations last year.
Additionally, women are not only victims of this war, they are now being recruited by armed militia to fight in the war, challenging yet again the narrative of lack of agency. Those women fighters have been reportedly used to disburse peaceful protests and storm houses and as forces to oppress political opponents.
4- What is the current participation of women in peace negotiations, and what are the prospects for this role?
For the peacebuilding efforts, there are three tracks, track I refers to the formal peace negotiation process that is facilitated currently by the UN, track II refers to parallel consultations with wider groups to discuss the peace agenda, and track III is where community level initiatives are implemented to support peace building and conflict resolution.
Women are leading in track III, through implementing community initiatives for conflict mitigation and resolutions and through leading campaigns to support peace and promote disarmament. For example, mothers of forcefully disappeared persons and arbitrary detained persons formed an alliance to support the release of their relatives.
Women are at the frontlines to respond. For example, in Yemen we are facing increased challenges of child recruitment. According to the UN, one-third of the fighters in Yemen are estimated to be children younger than 18. When those children were captured, women-led NGOs responded in delivering programmes for reintegration and psychosocial support. In contrast, the UN failed to address this problem when they suspended the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration progammes (DDRs) targeting child combatants from their Humanitarian Response Plan in 2016.
For track II, the UN Women supported the establishment of the Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security. This is a platform in which Yemeni women leaders from all backgrounds come together to advocate for peace. The Pact has a lot of potential to support women to be involved in the peace negotiations and requires serious support to make it a platform for meaningful participation of women.
Apart from UN facilitated processes, there are local initiatives to promote peace. Women are leading efforts for reconciliation and social cohesion. For example, women such as Dr Belkis Abou Ousba and Dr Entelaq Al-Mutawakil were part of the national reconciliation and peacebuilding authority who presented a road map for resolution in early 2016. Women also worked together to develop a national agenda for Women, Peace, and Security that was submitted to UN Security Council members. However, those efforts usually are disregarded and perceived by international community members as efforts that compete with the process facilitated by the UN even though they can be effective. In Taiz, for instance, there was a woman who contributed to the facilitation of releasing of war prisoners by warring parties, while the UN-facilitated process of releasing detainees during the third round of peace talks hit a wall.
The track I peace negotiation process is the most disappointing in terms of inclusive participation including women’s participation. The negotiating parties had 3 women out of 26 members. Those women represented the interest of warring parties. This representation of women also slims to zero during shuttle diplomacy, which is when the negotiating parties are not present in the same space and the UN Envoy fly back and forth between them. The committees that were formed as part of the peace negotiations process such as the de-escalation committees had zero women within their formation. This is also seen as a setback for Yemeni Women, as the NDC outcomes clearly calls for representation of women by no less than 30% in all political processes. There were efforts by the UN Envoy to increase women’s participation during the third round of talks; 7 women, including myself, were invited to conduct a five-day visit on the sidelines of peace negotiations.
All of these efforts unfortunately only reinforce negative stereotypes portraying women as second-class citizens rather than portraying their leadership roles, which can be realized if women are treated equally and are brought to the table as independent delegation.
When I talked to international community members involved in facilitating peace negotiations about increasing women’s participation, they always respond that they do not want to upset the Yemeni negotiating parties, or that there are no qualified women. Which is unfortunate, because they chose to entertain the warring parties excuses and reflect how unaware they are about Yemeni women’s contribution.
5- What do you see for the future of Yemeni women?
When I was in Kuwait as part of the peace talks sideline visit, I heard this question repeatedly by the international community sponsors of the peace process. I heard that it was great to meet with us as Yemeni women, I heard wishes that the negotiating parties had our wisdom, I heard about how committed they are to support the peace process and reach a political solution. This was very reassuring. But as I went back home and did my own reflection, I felt I may have been deceived. Some of those countries (sponsors of peace) are also members of UN Security Council, are also members of the Arms Trade Treaty, and are also supporting arms transfers to warring parties. They are making a lot of profits from Yemeni blood.
The War in Yemen is not as complicated as other countries in the region, we have had a political process and dialogue, we have a foundation for political resolution based on the NDC outcomes. We just need an inclusive platform for peace negotiations that gives voice to women, youth, and civil society actors. I see a future that will witness the rise of Yemeni women power, in a similar fashion to what happened post the World Wars in the U.S. and EU countries.
About the Authors
Nathalia Quintiliano is UN officer currently working with the Monitoring Mechanism for the arms and munition emboargo imposed on Yemen. Nathalia also serves as focal point for UNOPS Djibouti for the Task-Force for the Prevention of Sexual Abuse and Harrassment.
Adriana Erthal Abdenur is a fellow within the Peacebuilding division of Igarapé Institute, in Rio de Janeiro. She is also a Senior Post-Doctoral Researcher funded by the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) based at Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporânea do Brasil (CPDOC) of Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV-Rio).