Yemen: One of the Worst Places in the World to be a Woman

By God, I am broken from the inside. It’s not normal, I don’t feel like a human being. I can’t breathe properly like other human beings. We suffer from the forced niqab, child marriage, divorce shame, domestic violence and honor killings. I don’t know… as if we are aliens. They [male family members] have to oppress us and we have to stay oppressed – like a puppet controlled by strings.”

This is what a Yemeni woman told me over the phone, as her shaky voice reflected the sadness, hurt and fear which women in Yemen have come to experience on a daily basis. Over the past three months, as a member of the Yemen team at Amnesty International, I have been speaking to women in Yemen from Ma’arib, Taiz and Sana’a about the types of violence women are subjected to as they experience increased responsibilities and an evolution of their gender roles.

The increasing roles and responsibilities of women have proved to be a double-edged sword. Although the gender roles shift can provide an opportunity to alleviate women’s status quo when she is equipped with adequate abilities, women, as a result of this transition have been further subjected to violence. Literature has shown that in societies with rigid gender norms, men feel emasculated and threatened when they experience a shift in gender roles, which can lead to an increase in intimate partner violence.

In Yemen, a country ranked last in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index for 13 consecutive years, women have been suffering from deeply entrenched gender inequality rooted in a patriarchal society with rigid gender roles. While the conflict in Yemen has had a horrific impact on all civilians generally, women and girls have been disproportionately affected. Negative gender stereotypes and patriarchal attitudes, a discriminatory legal system, and economic inequality have compounded women’s vulnerability to violence. The fighting has left the country’s people struggling with a dire economic crisis, damaged infrastructure and collapsed services. But in addition, women have had to contend with limited mobility due to cultural gender norms. Also, since they are responsible for providing food and care in their homes, they have had to struggle with the challenges of limited (or lack of) access to food, water, sanitation and health care services – which has seen a steady deterioration as the conflict continues.

In addition to the economic and social challenges, the women I spoke to also shared with me a wide range of security-related concerns, some amounting to serious violations: attacks at checkpoints if they were unaccompanied by a male relative and attacks during protests, including harassment, arbitrary detention and torture and other-ill treatment by security forces, and increased domestic violence.

Another woman told me: “I was traveling with three children when we were stopped at a checkpoint by Huthi forces. They detained us, with no food and water during under very hot weather. We begged them to let us pass but they refused. They insulted us and threatened us with rape. We panicked and started crying… when they were done with us, they left us on the street at night in a secluded and isolated area… We were afraid, and the children terrified.”

According to prevailing gender roles, men are recognized as the “protectors” of women and families; without the male relative present, women are more vulnerable to sexual and physical violence. Within this context, an unchaperoned woman faces increased risks of violence at checkpoints. One of the tactics used by Huthi de facto authorities on checkpoints includes head-shaving, especially new brides traveling between governorates to meet their husbands. In this society, in addition to caring for her husband, a woman is expected to physically appeal to her husband. More often than not, these women end up divorced, shamed and suffer from psychological distress. Survivors of violence such as head-shaving are often reluctant to report the abuse, fearing backlash from their own community and security officials.

One issue on which women have clearly mobilized and refuse to stay silent is that of detention and/or enforced disappearance of their male family members. Mothers, wives and sisters of male detainees are both direct and second-hand victims of the detention and/or enforced disappearances of their family members. Firstly, deprived from their husbands, fathers and brothers, they suffer psychologically – made worse by not knowing when or if their loved ones will return. Secondly, they are forced to become the main caregivers, heads of household and activists mobilizing for the rights of their detained male relatives. Each role they step into increases their chances of sexual and physical violence within and outside of the household whether by neighbors taking advantage of a woman’s vulnerability or security forces curbing their activism and dismissing reports of violence.

Despite these challenges, these brave women continue their struggle for the release of their male relatives or for their right to know what happened to them. One Yemeni activist told me that during demonstrations calling for the release of loved ones, women were subjected to degrading treatment by security personnel as they protested in front of the UN Envoy’s office. She said: “We were harassed, beaten with rifles, our scarves were pulled, we were dragged on the street by security forces, some dressed in civilian clothes while others in military uniforms. One woman suffered from a head injury and was bleeding on the street.”

Despite the unique and particular ways in which women have been affected and suffered as a result of the conflict, and despite women’s active role in campaigning and advocating including for the rights of their detained male relatives, Yemeni women remain under-represented in peace talks. United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions, such as 1325 and subsequent resolutions, reiterate the importance of women’s participation in peace talks and peacebuilding negotiations, while other resolutions such as 2216 include calls on ending violence in Yemen while excluding explicitly the call for the inclusion of women and limits women’s participation to dialogue processes.

A UN-backed initiative led to the creation of the Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security which includes an advisory board of 60 women. The Pact aims to build women’s leadership, increase participation and inclusion in negotiations. The Pact also acts as a consultative body for the Office of the UN Special Envoy. The initiative, while a positive and significant step, should act as a platform to raise the voices of those mostly affected by the conflict by ensuring the inclusion of Yemeni women in peace talks.

The challenge remains as to translating such a positive initiative into reality on the ground. The rights and needs of women and girls will remain in the shadows, without a gender transformative agenda, peace in Yemen will be impeded. Women in Yemen are threatened or violently repressed if they speak out, mobilize or advocate for their rights. If the United Nations is serious about promoting gender equality and ending the crisis in Yemen, they should ensure more open space for women participation and increase their inclusion in peace talks, to make sure that such initiatives are meaningful and substantive.

It is crucial that any measure by the UN is grounded in a wider framework of addressing gender discrimination, through a national legislative reform process that would address longstanding violations of women’s human rights. The Yemeni government must take effective measures to increase women’s political participation, address systemic and discriminatory laws and practices, protect the right of women to equality with men and to be free from all forms of discrimination, and address the underlying social and cultural attitudes that discriminate against women. The Yemeni authorities must also ensure and reinforce the protection of women from violence and discrimination inside and outside of their homes.