The Treacherous Path for Yemeni Women Towards Achieving Rights

 image courtesy of the Peace Track Initiative

image courtesy of the Peace Track Initiative

Women-led organizations are working hard to mitigate the impact of war. Many have refocused their mandates from working towards promoting gender justice to providing humanitarian relief. The war has also led to new women-led organizations forming inside and outside the country; one such is the recently established Peace Track Initiative. Although it has been active since 2015, it formally registered in October 2017. The Peace Track Initiative was founded by Rasha Jarhum and Yasmeen al-Nadheri, two leading women’s rights advocates in the diaspora. The Peace Track Initiative aims at localizing the peace process and creating a space for women, youth and civil society to contribute meaningfully to the peace process.

Rasha Jarhum, Director of the Peace Track Initiative, explains: “We thought since the formal tracks of peace are excluding women, youth and civil society, then let’s create our own track. We first focused on women and started consulting with them on different topics related to the peace agenda.”

However, women’s participation in the peace process has been severely limited. Formal delegations invited to the peace negotiations did not respect the 30 per cent quota as per the outcomes of the national dialogue.

Jarhum: “We began by arranging meetings for women with high influential stakeholders including the UN Special Envoy, diplomats and national officials. We also nominate women for high-level conferences and meetings to ensure their voices are heard… [and] work on improving the access of women-led organisations to funding opportunities… One of the first steps we took was to work to strengthen the women’s movement. As such, we worked to revive a women’s rights coalition that was active since 2013 to promote women’s rights in the constitution draft. We rebranded the coalition and called it the Women’s Solidarity Network. The Network has now more than 250 members and is still expanding. The women are coming together regardless of their differences and backgrounds. We ensured that we don’t impose principles of consensus, and say that it is ok to have different political views and to acknowledge views of other women.”

The Women’s Solidarity Network aims at bringing women together first to protect themselves and each other, advocate for women’s rights and contribute to peacebuilding. Although the Peace Track Initiative facilitates and coordinates efforts within the Women’s Solidarity Network, the structure of the network is horizontal. As Jarhum notes, “The Peace Track Initiative is just one active member of the Women’s Solidarity Network. Seeing the members of the Network come together to resolve issues and provide help and protection for other women is inspiring. We regularly discuss political, social and economical issues and issue statements to ensure that our voices as women on major issues are documented.”

However, women’s participation in the peace process has been severely limited. Formal delegations invited to the peace negotiations did not respect the 30 per cent quota as per the outcomes of the national dialogue.

 image courtesy of the Peace Track Initiative

image courtesy of the Peace Track Initiative

 

In 2016, the Peace Track Initiative facilitated with more than 76 members of the Women’s Solidarity Network the process of drafting a national agenda for women, peace and security. The agenda was then sent to the UN Security Council – and the following statement by the President of the UN Security Council had explicit calls to include women in the peace delegations and instructed the UN Envoy to consult with women.

More recently, when the UN Special Envoy announced that he will hold Yemeni-intra consultations, the Peace Track Initiative formed a four-women delegation and held parallel meetings with him and other influential stakeholders to share joint messages developed by women on different topics including demilitarization, pushing for a local ceasefire in Taiz, building confidence, releasing the detainees and addressing the issue of disbursing salaries.

Persecution

Yemen ranks last in the global indicators for gender equality and justice, a situation created by the fact that discrimination is ingrained both in the legal and legislative system and in the customs and traditions that regard women as inferior. Indeed, existing laws are based on patriarchal systems of male guardianship, and women cannot move, work, learn or marry without the permission of their male guardian. Legislators consider this as necessary to ‘protect women’, and resort to Shariah to justify the control of women, even though there are currently religious views that support the autonomy of women and their full enjoyment of their rights.

Comparing the reality of women today and yesterday, Jarhum says, “This was not always the case. In the South, laws were based on equality, and after Yemen’s 1990 unification, patriarchy prevailed and women’s rights were the first to be sacrificed over the decades that followed unification. We gradually lost our rights, a woman’s inheritance and blood money became worth half that of a man’s, and we became second-class citizens”.

Yasmin al-Nadheri, Secretary General of the Peace Track Initiative, agrees and believes that women are powerful regardless of the unfortunate circumstances: “We are here to support other women to jointly claim our women’s rights. Women in Yemen fight battles on a daily basis in order to obtain their basic rights such as dignity, material rights, and economic, political, social or cultural rights. This struggle takes place in the home, the workplace, the street and public spaces.”

Status of women today

Despite the oppression, Jarhum says women have not remained silent. They have fought in many ways over the years to change the laws, paying a heavy price for this as they were attacked, considered apostates and threatened. Then women emerged again during the Arab Spring revolutions that began in late 2010 in Tunisia and early 2011 in Yemen, playing a major leadership role to achieve change during the transitional period that continued until early 2012. They achieved advances that began with their representation (28 per cent) in the national dialogue (March 2013 – January 2014), which led to agreement on a historic package of rights and freedoms, including the affirmation of women’s participation (at least by 30 per cent) in all areas of decision-making.

 image courtesy of the Peace Track Initiative

image courtesy of the Peace Track Initiative

 

Regarding the effect of war on the status of Yemeni women, Women’s Solidarity Network member and Executive Director of Ejaad Foundation for Development, Abeer al-Qadasi, says the situation for women has worsened due to the rise in gender-based violence. This is an inevitable consequence of a lack of legal awareness and the lack of social and economic empowerment for women. On the other hand, a significant number of women leaders have emerged, and women were represented in political consultations – and they have held diplomatic and administrative positions. In the last few years, we have seen the appointment of female ambassadors and ministers, thanks to previous efforts made in this framework, which was created by the comprehensive national dialogue conference, as well as other means.

Jarhum elaborated that after the escalation of the war, although we have seen some limited appointments of young women within the internationally recognized government as ambassadors or deputy ministers, they still make up less than 4 per cent of the government and diplomatic corps, and women in general are suffering from exclusion from the peace process space and negotiations. When she asked some UN staff, donors and Yemeni parties, including civil society actors, about the weak representation of women in the negotiations, she was met with shocking responses such as “this is not the time for women” (referring to their marginalization of women).

“What many fail to understand is that first, women have the right to be represented in the negotiations, because they represent more than 50 per cent of the population, and second, because they now bear the burden of war. In Taiz under the siege, women walk daily for more than 4 to 6 hours on treacherous roads to get the basic necessities of life, food, medicine and basics to protect their families. They also cross through security points themselves to protect men from the risk of being arrested. Women need to be actively involved and fairly represented, because they  shift the peace narrative from power sharing to responsibility sharing towards the affected communities”, Jarhum adds.

“Women today are peacemakers on the ground. Many of them are working on the release of detainees, risking their lives to save families stuck in the line of fire and delivering relief to the displaced.” Jarhum asserts that a just and sustainable peace should be based on fair representation, criticizing the absence of women leaders in the field of peacebuilding. This is because, in her view, the media and international and local organizations portray women as passive victims who cannot do anything; this is unrepresentative because female survivors of the war struggle daily to protect their families.

 image courtesy of the Peace Track Initiative

image courtesy of the Peace Track Initiative

Al-Nadheri argues that the suffering of women is the result of the war waged by men, who reject female participation in providing a vision to lift the country out of the war cycle that will not end without joint efforts. Women are in the first ranks of those efforts, along with the young people who are working hard to achieve peace and social cohesion.

Moreover, Al-Nadheri notes that many projects funded by international donors in Yemen are limited to humanitarian support and occasional support for simple development projects, in which at least 80 per cent of women work as volunteers. In addition, women contribute to providing for their families through their own projects, including food preparation and sewing, and other initiatives that have contributed to the development of temporary but robust solutions to support resilience in times of war and contribute to economic recovery.

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