Why peace in Yemen could depend on women

Women's vital role in peacebuilding benefits all.
Photo by Al Jazeera English (Women and children) / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Source: Wikimedia Commons

The war in Yemen, often called “the forgotten war,” has caused the death of over 10,000 people, including many civilians. Today, over 18 million people are in need of humanitarian aid and the country is facing one of the most severe famines to date and the world’s worst epidemic of cholera.

A Forgotten War

Today’s war is the product of mutual resentments between what used to constitute North and South Yemen and is the direct result of the failed 2011 political transition. Bolstered by the sweeping changes brought by the Arab Spring across the region, Yemenis protested against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and demanded his resignation. President Saleh was thus replaced by Vice-President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, a military officer from South Yemen in November 2011. However, the new President suffered from the military’s continued loyalty to Saleh and the growing Al-Qaeda presence in the country.

A Shia minority armed group from Northern Yemen, the Houthi movement, who had opposed former President Saleh, decided to take advantage of the instability and forged an alliance with Saleh in order to overturn President Hadi. In September 2014, they managed to occupy the capital, Sana’a and forced President Hadi to flee to South Yemen.

This occupation was the spark which ignited what would become a regional conflict. President Hadi sought out the help of the Saudis while the Houthis are reported to receive military and financial assistance from Iran. Thus, what started as a civil war became a regional proxy war between the two great powers of the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, the champion of wahhabi Sunni Islam, and Iran, the leader of Shia Islam.

Gender and Conflict

For over 10 years now, Yemen has been consistently ranked last in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index, which analyses progress in terms of political empowerment, economic participation, educational attainment, and health and survival. According to a 2012 study from the Cambridge University, there exists a strong correlation between gender inequality and conflict or instability. As much as gender inequality seems to foster instability, wars perpetuate these differences and exacerbate them.

In the case of Yemen, men and boys represent the majority of direct victims of armed conflict and forced recruitment, and they are four times more likely to be killed during a conflict. On the other hand, women and girls have become particularly vulnerable when it comes to access to health services, nutrition, gender-based violence and education.

According to Evelyn Thornton and Tobie Whitman, two experts in conflict resolution,  women tend to “suffer more and die in proportionally greater numbers than men from human rights abuses and sexual violence, the breakdown of social order, the lack of medical care, and the consequences of economic devastation”.

Although many women have gained economic power and household agency as a direct result of becoming heads of households in the absence of men, political rights and socio-cultural norms do not evolve as quickly.

As a result, Yemeni women often experience the double burden of being the family’s main provider while retaining their expected role of primary family caretaker, in a perverse effect that forms part of the feminization of poverty.

The fact that the country is facing an unprecedented famine also impacts women more as they are usually the first ones to give up food in order to feed the children and the men.

The economic scarcity created by the war also tends to disadvantage girls in particular. They are the first ones to be taken out of school to save the family some money through child labor or early marriage.

In Yemen, girls represent 63% of school drop-outs. The war has also seen a worrying increase in gender-based violence. According to the United Nations Population Fund, some 8,031 incidents of gender-based violence were recorded in Yemen between January and September 2016, including cases of rape and domestic violence.

Women as a peacebuilding force

While it is important to acknowledge the burden women bear as a result of the conflict, one should not assume that women have a passive victimized role.

Women’s non-combatant role has been shown to be an essential component of the war effort and there are numerous examples of female combatants actively promoting and perpetrating violence. Conversely, it means that men’s role in war is often essentialized as one of combatant and promoter of violence and does not take into account the possibility that men can be victims of sexual violence, for example.

In the end, “practitioners cannot sustainably increase women’s involvement and achieve gender parity without better engagement of male champions and persuading skeptical men and women about the significance of gender in conflict and peacebuilding. Neither men nor women can create peace and security without the other.”

Indeed, the participation of women and men in the peacebuilding effort has been shown to be incredibly beneficial. Peace processes with significant female involvement are notably perceived as being more legitimate and are proven to be more sustainable than those who do not.

The inclusion of women in peace processes can help consolidate wartime gains and lead to greater female participation in society at all levels as it strengthens their position as decision-makers, which, in turn, provides substantial benefits to the society as a whole. Indeed, an increase in female labor force participation results in faster economic growth, while the participation of female politicians in government increases the public’s level of confidence in state institutions.

Finally, a 2015 quantitative study showed that peace processes which included women had a higher chance of success.

Why women should be more included in peace talks

However, to this day, Yemeni women remain largely excluded from peace talks.

The UN has responded to calls from Yemeni women by trying to encourage their inclusion in the peace process through the creation of the “Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security.” Thanks to this initiative, women were thus invited to side discussions in the failed 2016 Kuwait peace talks as well as the 2015 Cyprus conference. But they were often relegated to unofficial roles with minimal impact in the substance of the negotiations themselves and often suffered from smearing campaigns aimed at discrediting their authority.

Yet, for all these obstacles, women in Yemen are leading the effort for peace. Already in 2011, they were key players in the organisation of the Yemeni revolution, and they successfully participated in the subsequent National Dialogue Conference obtaining the guarantee of a 30% quota of female political representation.

Moreover, many important Yemeni women have played an active part in promoting freedom, human rights and peace, including Amat Al Alim Alsoswa, Yemen’s first female ambassador, or Tawakul Karman, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and journalist.

A report by Saferworld and Oxfam laid out the different ways women could be more included in the peace negotiations.

Beyond direct representation as members of a women’s delegation, single delegates or observers, women can also bring an important contribution to the conversation through consultation methods. The meditation team can organize local forums in order to collect information, demands and proposals from women on the ground which can later be reported back to the members of the peace talks. This would allow for a more indirect form of contribution for women but it would nonetheless increase their visibility.

Encouraging greater inclusivity and transparency throughout the negotiation process could also help negotiations move forward and achieve tangible peace.  

Therefore, political and military players in the conflict should embrace the participation of women to the peace process and should include these promising and young women to the negotiating table. For ignoring women “risks not only women’s rights but also the general failure of peacebuilding as an enterprise,” and the stability of the Middle Eastern region as a whole.  

Guillaume Biganzoli

Guillaume is a French-American dual Master candidate with Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics studying International Relations and Security. Currently based in Paris, he has also gained professional experience in the United States and Belgium. Guillaume specializes in the Middle East and North Africa region and has previously written for The Caravel, Georgetown University's international newspaper, and the LSE Middle East Centre Blog. He is passionate about the Arabic language and cinema, Model UN and human rights issue.
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