Women in Yemen are enduring one of the worst humanitarian crises in history. After a 2011 Arab Spring uprising forced longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office, deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi took power and enlivened Yemenis with hope for change. In contrast to these expectations, however, civil unrest and development setbacks like corruption crippled Hadi’s government. The Houthi movement, a militant Shiite group, capitalized on this political disarray in 2015 and seized huge territories throughout the country, including the capital in Sana’a. Soon after, a coalition of U.S.-backed, Sunni-majority countries deployed troops to eradicate this Shia influence in Yemen. A brutal war followed that has expelled Hadi from the country, killed thousands and deepened extreme poverty and food insecurity for millions. The conflict has subjected women, who are already victims of deeply rooted prejudice, to increasingly unjust gender roles and violence. Fortunately, numerous organizations and legislation are working to advance women’s rights in Yemen.
Gender Inequality in Yemen
Patriarchal norms have long prevailed in Yemen. For 13 years, the Global Gender Gap Index has identified women’s rights in Yemen as the worst in the world. As the fighting continues, widespread instability is magnifying the country’s vast gender inequality.
Educational and economic opportunities for Yemeni women are severely limited. According to the World Economic Forum, only 35% of women are literate compared with 73% of men. While a majority of women receive primary education, only 40% continue on to secondary schooling. Such educational gender disparity, coupled with misogyny in the job market and burdensome responsibilities at home, contributes to women’s shockingly low labor force participation rate of 6.3%.
Beyond economic injustice, Yemeni women face a bleak social landscape. Tasked with managing the domestic sphere, women strain to procure even basic necessities such as food. This is especially true recently, as the civil conflict has subverted conventional supply lines. The concept of males as female guardians further jeopardizes women’s safety in Yemen, as a woman is considered safer when escorted by a male. With working husbands and pressing needs at home, however, women are forced to venture out unaccompanied. Without effective laws to defend them, women are left vulnerable to sexual assault and physical violence.
Years of conflict have eroded the institutions that once might have protected these women. The urgency of national stability has also relegated women’s security to a position of low priority. Even in previous times of peace, however, women had little means to voice grievances and even less power to enact change. Today, Yemeni women’s political participation remains low, with women making up a paltry 0.3% of parliament.
Amid the global push for gender equality, traditionalist insecurities drive men to violent retaliation against societal change, exacerbating the challenges women already face. But the outlook is not entirely hopeless. Here are four forces that are working to advance women’s rights in Yemen.
4 Forces Advancing Women’s Rights in Yemen
- Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security. Formed in 2015 after collaboration with U.N. Women, the pact is an association of Yemeni women aimed at ending the country’s protracted civil war. Beyond its aspirations for peace, the group has spearheaded women’s involvement in civic activism, paving the way for long-term political empowerment.
- Yemeni Women’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG). Also working to redress women’s exclusion from politics, the TAG comprises women from various areas of vocational expertise and serves as an advisory body. In addition to conferring on policy, TAG members participate in various peace talks. One such conference was the 2018 Stockholm consultation, in which the warring parties arranged to remove troops from Hudaydah, where fighting threatened to close off a crucial port to the Yemeni population. Though both sides have yet to observe this consensus, the Stockholm agreement set a precedent of women’s involvement in the civil negotiation of a violent, divisive conflict.
- Keeping Girls in School Act. Already passed in the House of Representatives, the Keeping Girls in School Act would combat global gender disparities in education. Under this act, USAID would execute a procedure to circumvent common obstacles to girls’ education, such as child marriage and patriarchal norms, and to boost female enrollment in secondary schooling. If passed, this act would abate Yemen’s severe educational inequality and equip adolescent girls with the knowledge and skills for future occupational success. Not only would the Keeping Girls in School Act enhance women’s rights in Yemen; according to Congressional findings, increasing girls’ education sparks development and economic progress. Thus, the act is both a form of social reform and a strategic necessity.
- Girls’ Leadership, Engagement, Agency, and Development (LEAD) Act. Referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in late 2019, the Girls LEAD Act has the potential to advance adolescent girls’ political involvement and civic engagement. The bill provides for USAID’s implementation of a comprehensive plan to educate and empower girls in developing nations. The Girls LEAD Act, if passed, would extend unparalleled political opportunity to Yemeni girls, helping to dismantle restrictive gender norms and molding once-disenfranchised women into agents of meaningful change.
As the civil war rages on, women’s conditions in Yemen may appear an irremediable predicament. Yet determined organizations, dynamic legislation and a country of women eager to escape society’s shackles are working to advance women’s rights in Yemen and make gender equality a reality.
– Rosalind Coats
Photo: Wikimedia Commons