Peacebuilding in Yemen: Women as Agents for Peace
As the violence has amplified existing inequalities and social protections have deteriorated, Yemen’s civil war has disproportionately impacted women and children including the number of casualties, increased malnutrition, higher displacement, and increased likelihood of gender and sexual based violence (Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, 2007). Since the war began three years ago, nearly 10,000 have died and more than 40,000 have been wounded (Dempsey, 2017), including the deaths of 2,200 children (Al Jazeera, 2018). As Yemen continues to fracture and destabilize, the humanitarian situation has come to the forefront. Yemen is now considered by the United Nations to be the world’s largest humanitarian crisis with 10.3 million people requiring immediate aid to remain alive (Al Jazeera, 2017) and over 600,000 reported cases of Cholera. (Ingber, 2017). For women, the situation is particularly acute as Yemen currently scores 151 out of 153 on Georgetown University’s Women, Peace, and Security Index denoting the lack of peace, security, inclusion, and justice Yemeni women experience (Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, 2017).
In a recent study by Saferworld (2017), women reported that their primary concerns are security, stemming from a widespread feeling of lawlessness, and their livelihoods as unemployment, inflation, currency depreciation, and essential good shortages increase. This sentiment is echoed by one of the leading human right activists in the country. Radhya Almutawakel, the chairperson of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, stated that most of the thousands of civilian deaths caused by the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on the country were women and children (UN Security Council, 2017). Furthermore, poverty resulting from the loss of many families’ primary income earner to death, detainment, and forced disappearance has worsened the conditions for women and children (UN Security Council, 2017). The crisis threatens to worsen as military forces from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates stage an assault on Yemen’s largest port in Al Hudaydah, which accounts for approximately 70% of the country’s imports (Kalfood and Walsh, 2018). The immense impact on women and children solidifies the on-going civil war in Yemen as a feminist foreign policy issue that warrants the attention of gender equality activists worldwide (Saferworld, 2017).
As the war continues, the significance of women grows. In any future peace agreement, women must play a role at all levels. Throughout the conflict, women in Yemen are “sustaining community cohesion and promoting peace at the local level” (Saferworld, 2017). On the community level, women seek to lead local advocacy and awareness raising campaigns about community peacebuilding, and the inclusion of women in all levels of governance in addition to their roles as mediators. One notable example is Sabreen, who is an educator, civil society leader, and mediator in Shabwa governorate (UN Women, 2018). In 2015, she facilitated a truce agreement between her community and rebel forces that culminating in the rebels leaving her community (UN Women, 2018). On the national level, women in Yemen have been working on peace efforts for years, for example, through the creation of the Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security in October 2015 (IPTI, 2018). The Pact drafted and submitted a series of policy recommendations for cessation of the war and subsequent peacebuilding to the UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths on March 8, 2018 (Yemen Women Voices, 2018). Aside from the Pact, the UN has not facilitated women’s participation in the peace process and relegated them to side discussions during negotiations (UN Women, 2018). This stands in contrast to best practices.
Recent research has demonstrated the importance of women’s participation in peacebuilding. In a paper for the World Bank, it was shown that when there are higher levels of gender equality, there is reduced risk of conflict (Crespo-Sancho, 2018). When the women participate in peacekeeping forces and security forces, the security sector has increased accountability and less abuses against civilians. When women and civil society groups are invited and meaningfully participate in peace negotiations, the resulting agreement is 64% less likely to fail and 35% more like to last at least fifteen years (Vogelstein and Bigio, 2017). On the national and international level, institutions must challenge the power dynamics demonstrated in conflict and the systematic lack of inclusion at negotiation table. They must provide space for women to actively participate in the inevitable peace agreement and subsequent transitional justice process. As a result, women’s participation, especially in areas of prolonged conflict such as Yemen, will improve the likelihood of sustainable peace.
To support these efforts, international actors must recognize and support the current peacebuilding work of Yemeni women and increase their participation in international processes. Women have long since taken on meaningful peacebuilding roles in their communities. As the conflict has now ballooned to include most Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain), Iran, and the United States, these countries must be held accountable to the UN conventions and international humanitarian laws to which they are party that govern the morality of war and support women’s participation including most notably Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security (UN Office of Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, 2004). International actors must create inclusive structures to include women who are already serving as conflict mediators and advocates for peace in their communities. Their invaluable experiences will breathe a new life into peace negotiations and ensure a more sustainable peace in Yemen.
Bridget Sakowski is a human rights activist and practioner working to increase and protect rights in the U.S., and the Middle East and North Africa. Follow her on Twitter: @BridgetSakowski
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