Women in Yemen: Subverting Gender Norms in a Conflict Zone

Western Media has yet again been (unsurprisingly) silent about the Yemen conflict. Since early 2015, the Middle Eastern country has been consumed by a brutal civil war that has claimed the lives of over 10,000 civilians, and displaced over 2.5 million people.

Sadly, like pretty much everything else in the world, War is sexist. Partially as a result of the conflict, Yemen ranked last in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Index, closing less than 52 percent of its gender gap*. Women caught up in the war not only have to deal with their lives being uprooted, and the constant fear of air strikes and shootings, but they also face sexual violence, loss of income, pregnancies, childcare, lost relatives, additional family burdens, all while trying to navigate a patriarchal society in a time of complete turmoil. An OCHA report from December 2017 estimated that 1.1 million pregnant women are in need of healthcare, a necessity which has become largely inaccessible given that 50 percent of hospitals and health centres have been closed down.  

“Women and children suffer most. Many of them have lost their lives in the air strikes and ground fighting between conflict parties. They suffer more because they lose their husband and father as the main breadwinner, having the added burden of collecting water and food and taking care of the family…”  – Shafiqa Al-Wahsh, Director of the Women’s National Committee of Yemen, UN Women.

The Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights recently released a video depicting the catastrophic impact that the war has had on Yemeni women.

*Warning* the video contains graphic footage of violence.  

Despite this, Yemeni Women are taking over political spaces and subverting traditional gender norms…

While the war has had a devastating impact on the nation, Yemeni women in recent years have mobilised to challenge the status quo and ensure that their voices are heard in the peacebuilding process. They’ve launched women-ran initiatives, been the driving force for local humanitarian aid and activism and adopted roles of leadership in their communities. Here are just a few ways that women are obliterating traditional gender norms in Yemen:

 

They’ve Created Their Own Political Platform

Yemeni women have established women-led initiatives in order to give themselves a voice and relay their experiences at an international level. A report by Safer World revealed that:

Some women in Aden reported that the war has empowered them and made them more resilient and more self-reliant than before, emphasising how conflict can affect gender roles in positive as well as negative ways.

From Karama, an organisation which “mobilizes women’s influence and participation across all instrumental sectors”, to the Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights or the Women’s National Committee of Yemen, Yemeni women have come together to use their local experiences and expertise as a catalyst to initiate dialogues, encourage advocacy and lead women’s advancement in the region. They’re taking matters into their own hands, creating their own political spaces and enforcing change from the bottom up.

 

They’re Demanding Inclusion in International Peacebuilding Efforts

 Image Source:  Karama

Image Source: Karama

Yemeni women are demanding quotas in peace negotiations as a form of ensuring that their voices are heard at all levels of decision making process. 2016 saw the first ministerial meeting of the League of Arab States on women, peace and security in which representatives of international institutions were joined by activists to discuss the role of women in peacebuilding talks in the Arab region.

Hibaaq Osman, CEO and Founder of Karama stated:

From civil wars to political instability to occupation, the Arab region is currently facing some of the world’s worst and most intractable violence and conflict. Women in the region not only have to the deal with the consequences of this violence, they must also face the indignity of exclusion from the processes seeking to bring peace and stability to the region. Without women, there will be no lasting peace in the Arab world.

Yemeni women are engaging international leaders, calling for ceasefire negotiations and being assertive in their struggle for peace. UN Women reports that in 2015, 45 Yemeni women leaders met the UN Special Envoy for Yemen and demanded their participation and inclusion in peace negotiations. Yemeni women aren’t afraid to voice their opinions at an international level, and are leading the way to justice for civilians by calling out corruption, gender inequality and disregard for women’s issues in the war.

 

They’re Driving Humanitarian Efforts and Activism

Women in Yemen are leading local humanitarian efforts and activism, dedicating their lives to helping those who have been worst affected by the war. A report conducted by Safer World shows that:

Women are having a positive impact on sustaining community cohesion and promoting peace at the local level through diverse strategies, including within their families, in humanitarian work, psychosocial support and in civic life

It’s up to the women to coordinate relief services; they’re the ones reporting human rights abuses, delivering medical assistance, food, and demanding for the release of abducted men through organisations like the Abductees’ Mothers Association. They’re the ones providing lifelines to people in besieged cities, giving hope to future generations and protesting the injustices they experience on a daily basis.

Although Yemen is a male-dominated society, women have found a place in the war to subvert traditional gender norms, and grab hold of the reins, giving them agency in both the private and public sphere. Through political mobilisation, community building and relief work initiated and led by Yemeni women themselves, they’re proving that women won’t be silenced in the fight for justice, equality and peace.

 

*The index uses 14 indicators to calculate scores, such as economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival. 

Article by Chanju Mwanza