Since 2015, a Saudi-led coalition has been waging war against Shia Houthi forces in Yemen. More than 8,000 people were killed, and more than 49,000 injured; at least 69% of the population apparently need humanitarian aid. Millions of Yemenis face famine. Arms circulation is widespread and uncontrolled: in 2016, a UN report estimated that between 40 million and 60 million firearms circulated freely in the country.
The conflict had a devastating impact on the women of the country. Household breadwinners are usually men; many fought, wounded or killed. There is an economic crisis in the private sector, and many jobs in the public sector are no longer paying salaries. The health and safety of the female population is endangered by exposure to cholera and other diseases. And then there is the issue of child marriage: the severe poverty crisis means that prepubertal girls are being married off to repay debts, or to raise funds to feed the rest of the family.
A woman from the Northern Ibb region, which is occupied by the rebel Houthi army, explained the situation to a research team:
We live in a state of lawlessness: no security, no protection and no functional law enforcement agencies. A person can be shot dead for a trivial matter. The security situation does not look like in the past. Now there are informal groups that act as if they are law enforcement agencies. These groups have power, and their power is the law. They use violence against those who disagree with them or criticize their behavior.
As feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe pointed out, women are crucial to war and play supporting roles for the military. Indeed, many Yemeni women are not victims of war or just escaping or hiding from this war. In many contrasting ways, they actively support it, and not just on humanitarian grounds.
Women participating in war
Although many Yemeni women discourage their relatives from participating in the conflict and very few take up arms themselves, they also help recruit men to the army. They also support fighters by cooking food for them and helping to hand it out.
A young woman, Nasseem Al-Odaini, whose family fled to the neighboring Ibb region, stayed behind in Houthi-occupied Taiz and formed an organization that assists the fighters who support the former government. As she told the Middle East Eye: “We want to encourage the pro-government forces to progress in the province by raising the minds of the fighters.”
Other Yemeni women are trying to mitigate the impact of the conflict in the best way possible. For example, women are involved in humanitarian aid and in providing social and psychological support to people traumatized by the war. They are also involved in peace processes when they start discussions of the conflict in their communities.
As the war is not as intense in every part of the country, there are better opportunities for women to take part in peace processes around the port city of Aden, in the south, than it is in the north, where the Houthi army controls took over. and Saudi coalition airstrikes are part of everyday life. As a result, women’s conditions and activities differ from one region to another.
A blocked momentum
In the north, local communities are more divided (between supporters and opponents of the Houthi government) than in the south. When women enter the public and participate in charitable work, they can be questioned by “de facto authorities” (read: the Houthi army) who, according to one woman, would try to stop them from doing their job. They will also tell women that they are not allowed to appear in public in front of men:
They [the Houthis] is opposed to women playing a role in public life. According to them, the woman’s role is limited to cooking and homework. They marginalize women; they deny their role in the community.
Women in the northern and southern parts of Yemen are not full citizens. According to Amnesty International, they “face discrimination in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody, and the state fails to take adequate measures to prevent, investigate and punish domestic violence”. Discrimination against women in Yemen extends far beyond the war and is, according to several studies, associated with local customs. And yet Yemeni women retain their involvement in the development of their country.
An old engagement
During the national uprising in the country in 2011 where hundreds of thousands of Yemenis followed the “youth movement” and protested against the corrupt rule of the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemeni women took to the streets to an extent unforeseen and unprecedented.
Many women participants were independent of political groups, but in the later stages of the protests, the Islamic Reform Party – inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood – managed to take control of the protest movement, prompting independent women’s concerns about their rights. would be disregarded.
However, independent women and women belonging to the political parties, including the Islamic Reform Party and the Houthi political wing, Ansar Allah, made up almost one-third of the participants in the UN-led National Dialogue Conference following the forced resignation of the president. in November 2011 The aim of the 10-month conference was to formulate a new and more democratic constitution for a united Yemen. However, the draft constitution, which included a general gender quota of 30%, was rejected by the Houthi movement in September 2014, before the people gave their vote in a referendum.
By that time, disappointment with the process to a new Yemen had given the Houthi’s wide popular support. They occupied large government institutions in the capital, Sanaa, and removed the internationally recognized transitional government. Interestingly, it was not the gender quota that caused the Houthis to reject the draft constitution, but the view of a power-sharing model that did not give them what they expected.
The Houthi movement’s occupation of the capital and seizure of government seemed to be both the beginning of a war and the end of momentum for women’s rights in Yemen – a country that is generally in the lowest ranks of Arab gender equality indices prevent. In 2014, a group of women from diverse political backgrounds campaigned for political solutions instead of war. Since then, they have been sidelined for peace talks – but that does not mean Yemeni women have lost all hope.