For the greater part of its republican history (the Yemen Arab Republic was established in 1962) Yemen has been plagued by recurrent and emerging armed conflicts, terrorism, radicalisation, record levels of mass displacement of population, famine and disease.
While Yemen’s crisis is dire, it is symptomatic of a wide-spread malaise. Our 21st century has been defined in terms of violence and political instability, and as data shows, standard peace-making methods have proven ineffective at addressing such trends – nearly half of the conflict-resolution agreements forged during the 1990s have failed within five years of their signing.
Recidivism rates for civil wars are alarmingly high, with 90 percent of civil wars in the 2,000’s occurring in countries that had already experienced civil war during the previous thirty years. It is this reality all actors engaged in brokering Yemen’s peace must grapple with and overcome. For Yemen to attain peace and security, new thinking is needed.
Perhaps Yemen’s solution may lie with the one demographic that has been systematically overlooked: women.
Back in 2016 the World Bank estimated Yemen’s female population as 49.8 percent of Yemen’s total population. Today the balance is believed to have tipped in favour of women to just over 51 percent.
Ignored, unrepresented, and abandoned, the women of Yemen, as the song goes, have remained ‘unspoken’, and yet it is women who have born the brunt of the conflict.
As of 2018 the United Nations claims that 76 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are women and children, and an estimated 3 million women and girls are at risk of gender-based violence. While only a year has passed since the publication of these numbers, women’ suffering and vulnerability have skyrocketed – spurred on by an escalation in violence as militias have pushed the boundaries of the tolerable to reinvent themselves in the unspeakable cruelty of radicalism.
While many will dismiss the thought of women’s socio-political engagement by arguing the need to prioritise issues of national security, Yemen’s dismissal of women as powerful actors for change, stability and growth is what led Yemen to unravel so completely under the thumbs of armed religious ideologues.
A growing body of research suggests that women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution advances security interests. One study found that substantial inclusion of women and civil society groups in a peace negotiation makes the resulting agreement 64 percent less likely to fail and, according to another study, 35 percent more likely to last at least fifteen years. Higher levels of gender equality are associated with a lower propensity for conflict, both between and within states. Despite growing international recognition of women’s role in security, their representation in peace and security processes has lagged.
Strengthening women’s participation in a country such as Yemen, which suffers from a litany of overlapping and interrelated issues, could allow for strides to be made towards stability as well as cementing much needed socio-economic advancement – in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which formally acknowledges the benefits of women’s participation.
Women can offer unique, substantive, and measurable contributions to securing and keeping peace. And although traditional efforts by governments and nongovernmental organisations to combat radicalisation typically focus on reaching out to political or religious leaders – who are predominantly male – recent research shows that antiterrorism messages are effectively disseminated through families and communities by women, who are well placed to challenge extremist narratives in homes, schools, and social environments, and have particular influence among the young.
The 2016 joint U.S. State Department / U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) strategy to counter violent extremism around the world explicitly recognized that women’s groups can help to identify and address the drivers of violent extremism within their families, communities, and societies. Yemen could greatly gain by including and empowering women – to the benefit of all, including regional actors.
High levels of women’s participation have proven to overwhelmingly strengthen state institutions while boosting financial growth all the while reducing levels of poverty, Yemen absolutely ought to aggressively bridge its gender deficit – if anything is to guarantee that peace will hold once it is brokered.
But minds would need reforming. Yemen’s tribal and patriarchal social norms are key factors contributing to women’s exclusion from both the political arena and the work-force.
Female access to paid employment has been challenged by a widely-held belief that women’s primary role is domestic, rather than academic or entrepreneurial. Such thinking has kept women in a state of social and political infancy, putting Yemen at a severe disadvantage in comparison to other countries. Yemen has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world, and yet it is signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
According to an ILO labor force survey conducted in 2013-2014, only 6 percent of women participated in the labour force prior to the conflict, while just 7 percent of jobs were held by women. Since 2015 women have been further pushed to the edge of society – their plight heightened by radicals’ cries for absolute gender segregation.
Yemen’s future will depend on how its officials shape Yemen’s peace. War cannot last forever. That said, to end a war does not equate with stability, and ultimately it is stability that Yemen most craves if it is to rebuild and thrive.
And until decision-makers come to terms with the fact that Yemen’s future will be most likely written by its women, this impoverished nation will forever chase its tail.