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Yemen: End the male guardianship restriction for releasing women from prisons

The internationally recognized government (IRG) and the Huthi de facto authorities must free women who have completed their jail sentences but remain arbitrarily detained because there is no male guardian to release them to, Amnesty International said today.

Prison authorities across Yemen keep women who have completed their sentences in jail if there is no male guardian to accompany them on release or they release them only to women’s shelters if their families refuse to receive them. Conditioning the release of women from jail on the approval of a male guardian is a customary practice which has been going on long before the onset of the armed conflict in 2015.

“It is unacceptable that authorities in Yemen still view and treat women as incomplete individuals, with no agency and who need to be accompanied by male guardians in day-to-day lives. Customary traditions must evolve, like societies do, to ensure that human rights and dignity are respected,” said Grazia Careccia, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Prison authorities must immediately release women, and anyone else, detained beyond the completion of their prison sentence in accordance with Yemen’s Criminal Code, the constitution, and international human rights law obligations. They should end unjustifiable deprivation of liberty and all forms of gender-based discrimination.”

Amnesty International interviewed a woman who had no male guardian willing to escort her out of prison and was instead released to a shelter in Ta’iz governorate, a former prison official at the Sana’a central prison, two lawyers, the director of a women’s shelter in Tai’z governorate, and two supervisors of two women’s shelters in Aden and Sana’a governorates.

‘Impossible to leave without a male guardian’

A former prison official who used to work at the Huthi-controlled Sana’a central prison explained how the male guardian restriction violated women’s rights.

“They say it is impossible to leave without a male guardian. One woman has been arbitrarily detained for five years following the completion of her sentence, another was held for two months until her son came from abroad to escort her out of prison. One woman was released to her father in 2019 only to be killed by him a week later.”

It is unacceptable that authorities in Yemen still view and treat women as incomplete individuals, with no agency and who need to be accompanied by male guardians in day-to-day lives.

Grazia Careccia, Amnesty International

Two Yemeni lawyers told Amnesty International that this practice has no legal basis, but is only rooted in social norms.

One lawyer said: “The law prohibits detention following the completion of sentence regardless of the gender of the individual. We need community pressure from organizations and activists to end this practice.”

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) explicitly acknowledges harmful social and cultural norms as the source of many women’s rights abuses. It obliges states to take appropriate measures to eliminate such norms and prevent gender and intersectional discrimination, gender-based violence and other related human rights abuses.

‘I had nowhere to turn to but the shelter’

‘Radiya’ completed her prison sentence in Ta’iz central prison in 2022 but had no male guardian willing to escort her out of prison. She was divorced by her husband and her family repudiated her due to social stigma. The central prison administration in Ta’iz governorate did not release her and sent her instead to a local women’s shelter, the Centre for the Protection and Rehabilitation of Women and Girls.

In 2021, ‘Radiya’ was raped by her neighbour in her house while her husband and three children were away. Her in-laws accused her of adultery and reported her to the authorities. She was convicted of adultery and spent a year in prison. Treating adultery as a criminal offence is a violation of women’s rights to privacy and a violation of CEDAW’s prohibition of discrimination in the family.

‘Radiya’ has been in the shelter for seven months now. She is training to be a seamstress but does not feel she is ready to leave the shelter or look for work yet.

She told Amnesty International: “I was jailed for being raped. I was released to the shelter because my husband divorced me, and my family wouldn’t take me back. I feel oppressed and deeply sad. I lost my children, my husband, and my family abandoned me. I am depressed. I had nowhere to turn to but the shelter. I hope I will build a new life and find work after I leave the shelter.”

The director of the shelter told Amnesty International: “We established this shelter in 2020 and we succeeded in transferring here all the women who had completed their sentences and the prosecutor’s office facilitated this [process]. They were 23 women back then.”

“These women need to be supported and offered rehabilitation to be able to reintegrate into society. We do this because society rejects women after they go to prison.”

Tai’z shelter currently hosts seven women released from prison, while Aden shelter hosts two women and Sana’a shelter hosts three.

In the shelters, women go through a rehabilitation programme to help them acquire or strengthen their professional skills. Some women get married and leave the shelter and others stay until they find a job. In some cases, the shelter administration manages to reconcile the women with their families so they can return home.

Women shelters coordinate with the prisons’ administration and the prosecutor’s office to secure the release of women to the shelters. Once a woman is ready to permanently leave the shelter, the prison authorities have to be notified, despite the lack of legal basis to prevent her exit.

Establishing shelters does not address the situation of other women who are being arbitrarily detained in prisons beyond the completion of their sentences, who have the right to be released and not to be placed in a shelter.

“Male guardianship is a tool of social control over women’s lives and freedoms and must not be legitimised through such practices. Authorities must work on eliminating discrimination against women by ending male guardianship in law and practice, even when this requires challenging existing social norms. They must open shelters for women at risk but also ensure that no woman is forced to reside there without her consent,” said Grazia Careccia.