Yemeni women demand equality in the midst of war

Activists, civil society and government figures made 21 recommendations to improve women's rights in the country

A picture taken on August 9, 2018 during a trip in Yemen organised by the UAE's National Media Council (NMC) shows Yemeni fighters loyal to the Saudi and UAE-backed government driving past a woman carrying a baby on a main road in Yemen's second city of Aden. (Photo by KARIM SAHIB / AFP)
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Applause rang out in a conference hall in the Yemeni city of Al Mukalla on Tuesday as a university professor revealed the number of female teaching assistants at a local government university had exceeded their male peers for the first time.

For gender activists and experts who attended the women’s conference in the south-eastern province of Hadramawt, the news is an indication that their decades-long efforts towards achieving gender balance in Yemen are bearing fruit.

But the fight for women’s rights in Yemen is far from over. A January 2019 survey by the World Economic Forum ranked Yemen last on a list of 146 countries on women’s rights.

Activists say gender equality issues have been put on the back burner as the internationally recognised Yemeni government, backed by the Arab Coalition, battles Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The five-year war has claimed the lives of thousands of people, but conference organisers say the time is right to remind decision-makers and society about issues of inequality.

Funded by the German’s international development agency Giz, the two-day Women’s Conference brought together 300 gender advocates, experts, university professors, government officials, NGOs representatives, businessmen and preachers.

It was the first conference of his kind in the area since 1990.

They discussed the challenges women face in Yemen, including access to education, lack of empowerment in politics, battling corruption, medical care and their role in achieving a lasting peace.

Seventy-six per cent of internally displaced people in Yemen are women and children, and an estimated 3 million women and girls are at risk of gender-based violence, the UN Population Fund estimates.

After two days of discussion and workshops, those attending produced a conference paper with 21 recommendations for improving the lives of women in Yemen.

These included expanding technical and vocational education for women, establishing a database for unemployed female graduates, improving reproductive health care, and increasing women’s participation in the country's politics and judicial system.

Fayza Bamatraf, the conference's chief organiser and gender activist, told The National that she was delighted by ideas and proposals for empowering women proposed at the conference.

“There is an increasing number of women in the public sector," Ms Bamatraf said.

"The number of female managers of government bodies in the province of Hadramawt has increased from three several years ago to 10 in 2019.

She insisted on sending invitations to male directors of Hadramawt’s remote mountainous and desert districts where child marriage and a lack of female education is rampant.

Ms Bamatraf wanted women from these districts to personally describe their suffering and find a listening ear among attendees.

“Those are decision-makers in their districts and we want them to take part in implementation of the conference’s outcomes,” she said.

Men were welcomed at the event in which talks were given on female empowerment, before those attending split into groups to discuss practical solutions to raising the status of women in the country.

Issues such as harassment, rooted customs and traditions and men who refuse to marry educated women were discussed animatedly.

Elsewhere at circular tables, male religious figures shared ideas with gender activists, moderated by a university lecturer.

Government officials also listened attentively to women sharing their personal stories and ideas, promising more jobs for women and establishing training centres for women in villages.

Only 6 per cent of women are in employment in Yemen, International Labour Organisation figures show.

Khaloud Abdul Aziz, a government employee who came from the city of Seiyun, told The National that she pushed for giving women higher positions in the province.

“There are male deputy governors. Why do we not we have female deputy governors too?” she asked.

On the second day, four papers about empowering women economically, fighting corruption, peaceful coexistence and health were presented to the gathering.

Fatima Mahfoud, a member of the General People’s Congress, said the conference was the first time she had taken part in such a large gathering for women.

Ms Mahfoud suggested future conferences be expanded to at least seven days and have more women invited.

“The ideas that were highlighted during the conference were great and I am sure they would bring about changes if they were implemented,” she said.

The conference did more than make recommendations, though.

Ms Bamatraf said a group of participants were selected to oversee the implementation of the recommendations.

“We will keep assessing performance of women’s participation in all sections,” she said. “The conference comes out with a strategic version for empowering women."