For lasting peace in Yemen, bring women to the table

Yemen Peace Talks, Switzerland, 15 December 2015. © UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

May 13, 2016

For a decade now, Yemen has held the last position in the Gender Gap Index. This index shows that Yemen has the widest gap in gender equality among other countries across the continent. This poor performance is reflected in our high rates of maternal mortality and lack of educational opportunities for women, but this underdevelopment has been exacerbated by a lack of women political participation. In this moment of unrest in my country, we are at a crossroads. We must include women in the peace talks or risk perpetuating the poverty, inequality, and violence that have caused havoc in our country for years.

It has not always been so bad. If you ask my mother, a proud southern Yemeni, about Yemeni women, she will speak reverently of the glory and power of Yemeni women in the South. She used to regale me with stories about how southern Yemeni women claimed their political rights as early as 1977 during the local elections. She told me that they established the Women Union in 1968. In fact, she used to brag about the amazing ‘family law’ that restricted polygamy, a law that defined the safe age of marriage and that famously gave a divorced woman, who had custody of her children, the right to retain her marital house. In sum, we were gaining political rights during that era.

So, what went wrong? The answer is not difficult: South Yemen and North Yemen were amalgamated. The union was between the South, which had a socialist, democratic, and liberal system, and the North, which had a republican, democratic, and Islamic system. Some challenges already faced by Southern Yemen in implementing the law were magnified because of the large population and high illiteracy rate in Yemen. Given all the challenges of harmonising the two disparate cultures, the case for women’s rights was lost in the shuffle.

The safe minimum age of marriage provision in 1998 was substituted with a vague law, which suggested that a girl could get married at the age of 15 if her legal male guardian gives his assent and if ‘she’s ready for intercourse’. Polygamy was allowed as well in that constitution.

Most importantly, women’s political participation in the parliament worsened dramatically. The highest representation in Yemen’s history was one woman out of 301 members of the parliament. Sadly, our only female parliamentarian passed away in February 2015.

In 2006, women’s rights activists, including myself, led a fierce campaign calling for a 30 percent quota in the local council elections, and we were moderately successful. The result of the campaign led to a commitment by all political parties to use a 15 percent quota. Even Saleh, the former president, announced that his political party would give a 15 percent quota for women. In the end, women only constituted about 1 percent of those elected. This insignificant proportion is a massive deterioration of women political status, as Yemeni women in the South comprised 9 percent of parliamentarians in the 1980s.

What is the cause of this inequality? The erroneous interpretation of Islamic teachings was often used to hinder women’s rights. Fatwas were issued against CEDAW, against women running as candidates for elections, against criminalising early marriage, against the quota systems, and against many more rights that deserve fair treatment. These challenges, including discriminative legal provisions and a lack of political will by the regime, contributed to the wide gap in gender equality.

Yemeni women may have lost the battle to fulfil their political aspirations, but this discrimination did not prevent them from leading a political change. In 2011, Yemen joined the Arab Spring and its citizens called for a change in regime through peaceful means. Women did not just participate in the nationwide mass demonstrations during that period; but they assumed a key role in the protests. The result of the campaign was the toppling of a 33-year-old autocratic rule. President Saleh stepped down and a transitional period was initiated. The new social contract was to be written through national dialogueproceedings, and the outcomes of the proceedings were to be integrated into the new draft of the constitution. Part of the agreements, thanks to the support of the UN, was that a 30 percent quota for women’s political participation should be enshrined in the constitution. In the end, women constituted 28 percent of participants at the national dialogue conference. Women led teams for the deliberations and the outcomes of the negotiations were the most advanced version of rights and freedoms that Yemen has ever witnessed.

These outcomes were even integrated into our new draft constitution. However, when the final document, was drafted, the constitution committee appointed only three women out of 17 members.

Unfortunately, the new draft of the constitution was hijacked by armed militia, a situation that forced Yemen into a downward spiral of conflict from that moment until now. Currently, Yemen is going through a third round of peace talks. Women’s voices have been absent from the peace talks so far. This unfairness threatens the sustainability of any deal that may be reached, and women are worried that any peace deal will be centred on a power-sharing formula instead of a socially responsible resolution leading to reparation for victims and affected communities. Now, once again, we are pushing for the inclusion of women. We will not stop our peaceful campaigns until our voices are heard and until our rights are implemented.

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Originally published on The London School of Economics Blog

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