Women in War: empowerment or burden?

Pictured above is the Representative of Generations Without QAT, a women-led charity, addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

There is a well-known phrase in Yemen, almar’a nesf almujtama, which translates as ‘women are half of society’. However, since the conflict began in 2015, around 76% of internally displaced people are women and children. And as the conflict drags on, the conditions for women and children continue to worsen. 

Neglected and forgotten, with an estimated four million displaced (three-quarters of whom are women and children), and half the country in starvation, and now with Covid-19 ravaging through the country, Yemen remains one of the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disasters to date. Record-breaking statistics fill up our timeline, and the world stands still as Yemen continues to break apart. What was supposed to be an intervention against the Houthi insurgency, the conflict resulted in the current political quagmire accompanied by famine, with no end date in sight six years later. 

Over the course of these six years, the war has changed the internal dynamics of Yemen’s society, particularly in its effects on women. The discourse surrounding gender in Yemen showcases two polarising scenes: on one hand, we see ‘empowering’ narratives such as the growing number of peace-building efforts and conflict resolution initiatives led by women, and women fighting in the front lines against extremists, women rising above the conflict and their traditional conservative roles. On the other hand, we see women and children being used as commodities of war: girls as young as only eight years old forced to marry in order to feed their families as a harmful economic coping strategy, and the gender-based violence which has increased by 63% since the war broke out. The latter is a result of the exacerbation and the intensification of pre-existing discrimination patterns.

Narratives of ‘women empowerment’ in Yemen started prior to the conflict. In fact, it was during the 2011 uprising that women’s voices were heard as they played an active role in ousting then-president Saleh. Furthermore, the 2013-14 National Dialogue Conference also included relatively strong female voices, in which almost 30% of its participants were women. These nation-wide talks in 2013-14 were a positive step towards change. However, since then women’s voices were rarely included in high-level meetings concerning peace talks and conflict resolution. Progress was put in the backseat and the deteriorating situation in Yemen meant that any progress towards gender equality stalled on the path to regression. Despite UN Resolution 1325 which emphasises women’s role in peace and security, the international community has failed to ensure a long-term solution including Yemeni women in shaping future governance of Yemen. For instance, Council of Foreign Relations reported that ‘no women participated’ during the 2019 Riyadh Agreement negotiations.

Despite their exclusion from the roundtable, Yemeni women continue to be on the frontline of community-based peace-building efforts. They are at the forefront of negotiating peace. Muna Luqman, Yemeni activist and founder of Food4Humanity, a women-led charity that has provided emergency relief in Yemen since its establishment in 2015, instigated a mediation process involving 16 community representatives over a water-related conflict in Al-Haymatain, Taiz. As a result, a local council was established in order to prevent future water-related conflicts. The story of Muna Luqman is just one of many that showcases the strength and ability of Yemen’s women in local peacekeeping efforts.

As women like Muna Luqman take on the role of mediating local peacekeeping efforts, fitting into the model of ‘empowerment’, Nadia Al-Sakkaf, Yemen’s first woman Minister of Information, believes that there is an important caveat to these narratives. She argues that these ‘empowering’ narratives of women’s role in the conflict is a disguise for burdening them with more responsibilities. She writes that women, managing their community, women as mediators and peacekeepers at the community level may look empowering at face value, but as women are expected to maintain these roles without basic resources, without adequate support and simultaneously still largely excluded from crucial decisions e.g., peace negotiations and aid distribution, Al-Sakkaf argues that women are being given more responsibilities and being burdened at an extreme degree and at the same time still bearing the biggest brunt of the war. 

Context also matters, as the situation for Yemen’s women differs depending on which area and which side of war they are on. In her CNN Op-ed piece, Al-Sakkaf writes that while Zaidi women in the North find themselves in an ‘ideological battle’, Houthi women are tasked to recruit soldiers to fight in the frontlines of war. Whichever side they happen to be on, freedom is limited for these women. Women are either risking their lives in battle or they are burdened by the lack of support in instigating local/community-based peace-building efforts.

Women should be equipped and supported in order for them to adequately manage their communities, act as mediators and peacekeepers. They should be afforded seats at the table in vital negotiations and decision-making, and this is not a matter of tomorrow but a crucial matter of today as women and children continue to bear the brunt of the conflict in Yemen. Responsibility without support is not empowering, it is just burden.

This article was written by the NCF Research Officer Fara Maruf and does not necessarily represent the views of the Next Century Foundation.

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