Yemen's women may hold key to solving the country's devastating civil war

Exclusive: In the final part of her series from inside Yemen, Bethan McKernan investigates how the conflict is weakening the position of women and girls in society. Calls for female inclusion in public life – and a seat at the table during peace talks - are growing 

Tuesday 21 November 2017 18:37
A woman writes 'We won't forget you, oh our martyrs' on a wall in Sanaa, Yemen during a 2013 protest demanding an end to the violence which consumed the country after the Arab Spring
A woman writes 'We won't forget you, oh our martyrs' on a wall in Sanaa, Yemen during a 2013 protest demanding an end to the violence which consumed the country after the Arab Spring

The throne of the Queen of Sheba, the powerful Sabean ruler who 3,000 years ago supposedly united warring tribes into a prosperous kingdom in modern Yemen, is rarely visited at the moment.

The five columns of the temple complex that served as the seat of her power cast long shadows, even under the 11am sun. The bases are covered in graffiti from throughout the ages, and empty water bottles and other rubbish litter the sand.

The historical debate over whether the mythical queen really existed continues to this day.

In any case, the stability of ancient Sheba feels far removed from the entrenched state of warfare Yemen faces now.

Many people point to the Queen of Sheba's ancient kingdom - Belquis, in Arabic – as proof Yemen could prosper again (Bethan McKernan)

Two weeks into Saudi Arabia’s closure of most of Yemen’s airspace and ports, in retaliation for a Houthi rebel ballistic missile launched at Riyadh airport on 4 November, activists and aid workers are warning that the impending famine is set to become the worst humanitarian crisis in modern history.

A total of 20 million people – two-thirds of the population – are currently reliant on Yemen’s ports for vital food, medicine and other aid shipments. Last week, the UN said that the current restrictions have pushed another 3.2 million more into hunger, and 150,000 malnourished children will die by the end of the year if the blockade is not lifted immediately.

Despite or perhaps because of the violence and poverty that plague the country now, Yemenis are intensely proud of their history. During The Independent’s visit to relatively safe Marib province, loyal to the exiled government, many people pointed to the ancient kingdom of Belquis – her name in Arabic – as proof the country could be made great again.

Marib itself is leading the trend: it is a beacon of hope amid Yemen’s chaos, thanks to its oil reserves. Tribal leaders, arms traders and dealers of khat (a plant-based stimulant) in the boomtown are growing rich.

Marib General Hospital is a beacon for those in need in Yemen

In the main lecture hall of Marib University, whose ranks have swollen from around 1,400 students to 5,000 as internally displaced middle-class people flock to the town from elsewhere, a black and white poster of a Bedouin woman brandishing an AK-47 stares down at the young people listening to a maths professor.

Marib’s governor, Sultan al Ardah, speaks admiringly of the role he remembers women played in solving tribal disputes when he was a younger man. “They’d sort out any problem. And no one argued back the way they did with male negotiators,” he said.

That doesn’t seem to be the case now, however.

Life was hard in Yemen even before the country slid into full scale civil war in March 2015. While many Yemenis chafe at the usual descriptor it is given in Western news bulletins – “the poorest country in the Arab world” – pre-existing poverty and a lack of basic infrastructure have greatly exacerbated the hardships of the conflict.

For Yemen’s women, the effects have been manifold. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the escalation of the conflict has “further weakened the position of women and girls in society”.

There has been a “near erosion of [women’s] protection mechanisms and [an] increased vulnerability to violence and abuse,” said Anjali Sen, UNFPA's Representative to Yemen based in Sanaa, Yemen’s Houthi controlled capital.

Child marriage is also on the rise, as war takes an economic toll on families struggling to make ends meet across the country. Before the war began, local activists had convinced politicians to consider a law outlawing marriage for girls under the age of 18.

Now, tens of thousands more have been auctioned off as the practice re-emerges without challenge, their hopes of an education and independence sacrificed for the good of the family unit.

‘I’m making this wedding dress for this doll. But I hope to never wear a wedding dress again,' said 15-year-old Soad

Soad (not her real name), now living in a UNFPA-run shelter in Sanaa, was married last year at the age of 14 to a 75-year-old man. She ran away after being beaten and abused by her husband and his family.

“I just want to live my life,” she told interviewers, as part of a project designed to raise awareness of November's 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign. “I dream of having an education.”

In Marib, where there are now many women in university, the local authorities have started a bus route to ensure they get to and from campus safely. But one local human rights activist said she feels that what on the surface seems like progress is still not adequately challenging the status quo.

“There are more women in the colleges now, yes,” 25-year-old Amatela Al Hammadi said. “But what do they do with that education? The woman who holds the highest-ranking job in the whole of Marib is a head teacher.

“Our voices are still not being listened to. We are not present in meetings that decide our lives; we don’t take decisions at any political or civil society level.”

More women are studying IT, Maths and Physics at Marib University than men

Everyone suffers if women don’t get a place at the table, Ms Hammadi warned. Recent research suggests she is right.

Several papers have found that women’s involvement in peace building increases the probabality of ending violence by up to 24 per cent. In Yemen’s failed talks so far, very few women have been included at a natiional or international level.

In 2013’s National Dialogue Conference after the initial Arab Spring protests – which lasted for months, and included dozens of parties as part of the reconciliation efforts – people were hopeful the country was on the right path to political and economic reform.

Women acting as informal peacemakers at local levels were key to that success, Oxfam and Saferworld found, adding that the positive impact must be built on in the future.

In a war where the front lines have barely moved in almost three years, and there is little international political will to challenge the actions of the Saudi-led coalition, it is unlikely any meaningful steps will be taken towards a ceasefire any time soon.

“This is the land of Queen Belquis,” Ms Hammadi said. “Yemeni women have always been capable. We will always be capable. We just need the opportunity to prove it.”

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