Women are key to ending Yemen's civil war

Women are key to ending Yemen's civil war
5 min read
23 Dec, 2020
Comment: Without women, Yemen's peace talks have gone nowhere. Peace will never be forged if our voices continue to go unheard, writes Tahani Saeed.
A new cabinet was announced last week made up entirely of men [Getty]
Three years ago, while traveling to the outskirts of Yemen's capital, Sana'a, I met a young woman, who I'll call Mariam. 

Mariam was eight months pregnant at the time, and caring for two toddlers while her husband fought on the frontlines. Mariam was in desperate need of medical care. As we said goodbye, I promised to connect her to a doctor at a nearby hospital. But the fighting and chaos meant it was days before I could put them in touch.

By then, it was too late, Mariam died during childbirth, as war raged around her. 

A new government was formed in Yemen last Friday, but for the first time in two decades, it included not one woman. I am reminded of Mariam and the thousands of other women like her, who have lost their lives because of Yemen's civil war.

Over the past six years, the conflict in Yemen has had a profound impact on women and girls. Over a million pregnant women and new mothers are now acutely malnourished. According to UNICEF, one woman and six new-borns die every two hours from complications during pregnancy or birth. Along with starvation, Yemeni women are suffering from rising levels of gender-based violence. Since the war began, violence, including domestic abuse and child marriage, has increased by 63 percentCovid-19 has only made matters worse. 

Yemeni women are dying and suffering because of Yemen's civil war, yet we are denied a role in helping to forge a solution

Yemeni women are dying and suffering because of Yemen's civil war, yet we are denied a role in helping to forge a solution. In the last round of UN talks in 2018, there was only one Yemeni woman at the negotiating table in Stockholm. Not a single woman was represented in the Ansar Allah delegation, which went unchallenged. 

The absence of women in Yemen's peace process is not for a lack of trying. In 2015, I was one of the 45 Yemeni women leaders who launched the Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security (Tawafuq) to ensure women would be at the table and have a role in building peace. Women who belong to various political and civil society backgrounds participated in the Pact and together, we started a long chain of advocacy work across political lines leading in some cases to hostage releases. But while our efforts won accolades internationally, domestically we have been met with staunch resistance. 

Repeatedly, the parties at the table warn that now is not the time to raise our voices. Our demands for inclusion in Yemen's peace talks are treated as an intrusion. Even the international community - while rhetorically sympathetic to women's empowerment - has stopped short of making our inclusion in the political process a red line issue. In so many words and in so many ways, female activists like myself are continually told that peace talks are too fragile already and pushing the parties to include women would only complicate the prospect of reaching a peace agreement.

Read more: Yemen forges unity government: officials

Those arguments are born of fear and prejudice, not reality. The consequences of women's exclusion from Yemen's peace process has had a markedly negative impact on the negotiations. Without women, talks have gone nowhere. Issues that matter to Yemeni women - like developing means of civilian protection, securing access to humanitarian aid including reproductive care, and maintaining education to ensure young women have a future - have gone unaddressed.

Achieving even minimal agreements needed to provide basic services like electricity and water have proven impossible. Having women at the table can help break this deadlock.

Research on past processes is clear that when women are meaningfully involved in peace processes, peace agreements are more likely to be forged and less likely to fail. From Colombia to South Sudan to Northern Ireland, women have been instrumental in identifying areas of compromise, working towards concrete outcomes, and working across party lines to get deals done. Even in Yemen, where women are far removed from the hallways of power, we are demonstrating our ability to deliver for our constituents and create the change our people need and deserve.

As a member of the Group of Nine Coalition which consists of Yemeni women and youth groups and aims to mainstream United Nation Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) in peace discussions, I have been working alongside other women to support women's participation in Yemen's peace process. Together, we've conducted a major advocacy campaign to support the UN Special Envoy's call for a ceasefire.

Female activists like myself are continually told that peace talks are too fragile already, and pushing the parties to include women would only complicate it

As a result, high-level meetings were conducted with parties to the conflict, representatives of countries and other relevant stakeholders. These efforts are positively shifting the general public's view on women's participation and already have had an impact on the Joint Declaration, ensuring it includes women's perspectives. The work of this coalition is a solid example of how impactful Yemeni women's groups can be if we get the support we need. 

But the need to act is now greater than ever. Despite these efforts, the cabinet formed last week was made up entirely of men. Going forward, the meaningful inclusion of women must be paramount to the international effort. 

The fact is, peace will not be forged in Yemen if women's voices go unheard. Women like Mariam did not start Yemen's civil war, but we are key to ending it. When Yemen's warring parties return to negotiations, women must be at the table.

 

Tahani Saeed is a founding member of the Yemeni Women's Pact for Peace and Security (Tawafuq), the Group of Nine Coalition, the Coordinator of Pact to the Yemeni Group of Nine Coalition and the General Director of Technical Cooperation at Yemen's Central Bureau of Statistics.   

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.