Women turn their backs on party politics in Yemen

A profound distrust in political parties is hampering female participation in Yemen's struggling democracy, a study released on Tuesday suggests.

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SANA'A // A profound distrust in political parties is hampering female participation in Yemen's struggling democracy, a study released on Tuesday suggests. Although about half of eligible females, those 18 and over, in Yemen had registered to vote by 2003, their representation in the country's legislature has been in dramatic decline - from 11 in 1990, to only one among the current body's 301 seats. From 1993 to 2003, the number of women competing in parliamentary elections also fell significantly, from 42 to 11, the Aswan Centre for Social and Legal Studies and Researches, based in Yemen's capital, Sana'a, found.

"The decline in the number of women candidates is a serious indicator of the failure of Yemen's political parties to back up their rhetoric of promoting women's participation in the parliament," Abdulbaki Shamsan, a professor of political sociology at Sana'a University, said in reaction to the study's findings. Although long-held cultural traditions that disempower women are at work here, experts acknowledge, ineffectual party politics may also be keeping women from participating in public affairs.

Less than a fifth of the survey's respondents (18.2 per cent) said they had confidence in the country's political parties, and 17.7 per cent believe that the parties view women's issues mainly as propaganda tools. Yemen, a nation of 23.5 million people, would seem a beacon of equality and political openness. After reunifying the northern and southern halves of the country in 1990, a half-dozen parties have competed in several rounds of parliamentary elections. In all of them, women have participated as candidates and voters.

But after polling 500 women from across five of the country's 21 governorates this summer, the authors of the study, which was funded by US-based National Endowment for Democracy, concluded that many are turned off by politics. "These findings mean that the relationship of political parties with women from their perspective is based on exploitation in which women issues and their votes are manipulated [by political parties] without a serious and sincere adoption of their concerns... This is why it is necessary to build a bridge of confidence between the political parties and women," said the study called "The Relationship between Yemeni Women and Political Parties".

About 14.9 per cent of the respondents attributed the failure of female candidates to win elections to the lack of societal encouragement for them to engage in politics, while 10 per cent put the blame on the lack of financial support political parties give women running for office; 5.2 per cent said the reason is because women do not have confidence in themselves.   Only 18.7 per cent of the key positions among the four parties currently represented in parliament are held by women, the study found. At the provincial level, this lack of representations is even more pronounced: only 37 of the 7,000 members of local councils are women.

Aidarous al Naqeeb, head of the parliamentary bloc of the opposition Yemeni Socialist Party, said the study sends a message that the women are not happy with the performance of political parties. "Women are part of a society which is going through many political, economic and social ordeals and their problems are part of this situation," he said. "However, the study is an alarm that the public is not satisfied with the performance of the political parties as they went away from the real concerns of the people and got themselves busy with politics, though these issues are there in their platforms," Mr al Naqeeb said.

However, Abdulkareem Qasim, professor of philosophy at Sana'a University, said female disenchanent goes beyond simple disgust with politicians. It also has to do with traditional restrictions placed by families on women and other similar issues that the study did not discuss, he said "There are social, cultural and economic hindrances before women progress and the study should have discussed ... The failure of the female candidates and the communication gap between political parties and women are because of the [conservative] family culture that bans women from engagement in public activities," Mr Qasim said.