Lawyer lines up for Yemeni polls

A 48-year-old Yemeni lawyer hopes to improve the political representation of women by seeking a seat in parliamentary elections.

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SANA'A // Laila Jafar al Saqqaf, a 48-year old Yemeni lawyer, is vying for the nomination of the ruling General People's Congress to run in April's parliamentary elections, though her chances are uncertain at a time when women are increasingly scarce in the country's political system.

"I have applied to the party leadership to run for election in Aden. There are other men and women who want to run and I was told the party will decide its candidate next February based on the popularity of the applicants," Mrs al Saqqaf said. Statistics point to a recent decline in the number of women running for office, even as female voter registration has risen. Despite the conservative nature of Yemeni society, there are no legal obstacles stopping women from voting or standing as candidates.

The number of women in parliament has fallen from 11 in 1990 to one in the 301-seat parliament, and two in the Shura (consultative) council where all 111 seats are appointed. In the local councils, there are 37 women and 7,000 men. Four women applied to run for Yemen's presidency in 2006 but their applications failed to get the required five per cent backing from parliament and the Shura council.

There are currently just two women in the cabinet, in the ministries of human rights, and social affairs. About 35 participants representing government, civil organisations and political parties met last week and agreed on an agenda to ensure a greater involvement of women in the electoral process, calling for a 15 per cent quota for women in all local and parliamentary councils. "It recommended working on issuing a law obligating political parties to adopt the candidacy of women in their electoral lists because most political parties are reluctant to nominate women," said Yousuf Abu Ras, director of Democratic Assistance Dialogue (DAD) at the Human Rights Information and Training Centre (HRITC), a local non-governmental organisation.

The DAD was founded at a 2004 summit under the Group of Eight countries' initiative partnership for progress and a common future with the region of the broader Middle East and North Africa. Mr Abu Ras said the HRITC, which has been working through the DAD to empower women, discussed two of the organisation's studies on the legal and social restraints facing women in politics. These studies, said Mr Abu Ras, have shown that women face legal and social restraints, such as the election bill, which impedes women running for parliament by requiring that each independent candidate must first secure the nomination of 3,000 voters, a tall order in a patriarchal society. The draft declaration, expected to be released in its final form tomorrow, recommends reform of discriminatory legislation, forcing political parties to have female candidates on their electoral lists and teaching gender equality at all levels of education.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, put forward a package of reforms in Sept 2007 that included the 15 per cent quota for female participation in local and parliamentary councils but The Joint Meeting Parties, an opposition coalition of five parties that includes Islah, Yemen's main Islamist party, said it would not be enough to address women's political ambitions. "The proportional list elections system, which guarantees representation for all minority groups, is the key solution to address women's political participation. It will also figure out the seriousness of political parties with regards to female political empowerment," said Yasin Saeed Noman, secretary general of the Yemeni Socialist party, the second largest JMP member after Islah.

The number of women who have registered to vote has increased dramatically in a decade, from 15 per cent in 1993 to 42 per cent in 2003. The number of registered voters in Yemen is approaching nine million - 5.3m men, and 3.4m women. Should she win, Mrs al Saqqaf said, "there are many issues that would be my priority, like early marriage, women, education and work."