The Role of Women Peacebuilders in Yemen

Women in Yemen engage in dispute mediation. Women in Yemen engage in dispute mediation. © Search For Common Ground

This is a presentation of the report “Women in Conflict and Peacebuilding in Yemen” commissioned by UNWomen in Yemen.

The 2015 escalation of Yemeni Civil War brought an onslaught of change to an already fragile county. In the absence of a functioning state, over two million people were displaced and 22.3 million Yemenis were left, and still are, in need of humanitarian aid. Not to mention, Yemenis must tackle a severe outbreak of cholera with a minimally functional health system. Even if the conflict were to end, Yemen is at risk of facing a series of ‘small wars’ in its wake.  This wave of change has become a double-edged sword for Yemeni women who, though burdened by the physical and emotional trauma of war, feel empowered to transcend societal norms by engaging in peacebuilding.

UNWomen commissioned a study to explore the role of Yemeni women in conflict and peacebuilding. Along with a thorough literature review, researchers compiled data from key informant interviews (KIEs) and focus group discussions across nine Yemeni governorates: Aden, Al-Baydha, Al-Dhale’, Al-Jawf, Hadhramawt, Mareb, Shebwah, Sana'a Governorate, and Taiz. The informants included local, female leaders and the focus group discussions involved community leaders, local authorities and civil society organisations. Interestingly, the findings demonstrate how the conflict in Yemen empowers women to become dedicated advocates and shed the du’afa (weak) stereotype.

Even prior to the conflict, Yemen ranked lowest of 142 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. Despite initiatives such as the Women’s Government Machinery and the National Women’s Development Strategy, Yemeni women continue to face systemic discrimination. This is because Yemeni culture “equates voice and value most to those who contribute to the family’s economic well-being”.  Not to mention, the level of discrimination increases for women who are racial or economic minorities.

Many of these societal prejudices are exacerbated during the conflict. For instance, there is a proven link between high levels of gender inequality pre-conflict and higher risks of “sexual, gender-based violence during conflict.” During the conflict, Yemeni women must battle sexual abuse, withstand labour and miscarriages in the absence of a sound health system,  and find employment with little to no education or transferrable skills. In fact, the economic impact of war stood as the most severe on women’s lives, as the traditional breadwinners of their households are recruited and/or killed.

Despite these hardships, it was found that Yemeni women are more likely to find opportunities to resolve conflict rather than perpetuate the violence. Additionally, Yemeni women with a  pre-existing roles in governorate peacebuilding maintain that role, but where they had little or no such involvement before conflict they would have even less. Women peacebuilders in Yemen resolve individual conflicts related to land, economic hardship, and divorce, as well as sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shia’a, despite the tendency of these conflicts to increase anti-women rhetoric. Still, Yemeni women have had significant success in conflict resolution. For instance, Fatem Taleb Akarm from Mareb resolved a six-year conflict in two days, and a lawyer from Al-Baydha, Fatimah Mohammed Omer Al’Mazafery, fought her stigma as a divorced woman to resolve custody disputes. Importantly, the presence of women peacebuilders in Yemen is not an entirely new phenomenon. Many of the study’s participants had decades of experience. For instance, Saberah Al-Okaimy from Al-Jawf gave refuge to and prevented the capture of tribal forces in 1995.

Despite these findings, Yemeni women have not shed the “du’afa” label completely. In fact, women acting as mediators and peacebuilders must often do so by adhering to existing gender roles and stereotypes within their community. Interestingly, the prevalent perception of women as ‘weak’ helps them while engaging in peacebuilding, as the conflicting parties find them non-threatening. Moreover, the roles of women peacebuilders often go unrecognized, as they are not permitted to meet with parties in public. Similarly, while women have begun to manage agricultural land, small business, and court cases, they remain excluded from the formal decision-making processes. Nevertheless, women peacebuilders play a vital role in Yemen’s society.

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