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Yemeni women make their voices heard

Yemeni women are fighting for a new constitution that stops discrimination and gives rights and equal opportunities.

Last Modified: 23 May 2013 13:36
Amina Semlali

Amina Semlali is a human development specialist and works on labour market and social protection issues for the World Bank's Middle East and North Africa Region.
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Women are well-represented in the National Dialogue forum in Yemen [EPA]

"Side by side we fought with men for a better Yemen. Now we will fight for a constitution that is inclusive of women and men alike." - A young woman at the National Dialogue Conference, March 2013, Sanaa, Yemen 

Yemeni women are some of the fiercest women I have ever met. Through conflicts and famine, many have had to struggle for the survival of their families. The abject poverty afflicts Yemeni women in particularly harsh ways, yet they carry on and persevere. Still, their pride in their culture and love for their beautiful country always shines through.

But in spite all of this, I was still surprised when I saw footage of the protests that rocked Sanaa in 2011.

Women, side-by-side with men in the thick of battle, openly protested in the central city space that came to be known as "Change Square". Despite numerous failed attempts to prevent women from joining the demonstrations, they stood firm. In fact, some took on leadership roles during the revolution, while others marched on the streets or helped organise a field hospital, treating wounded demonstrators.

In one of the many videos that spread across the internet, one woman expressed her feelings after marching in the "Friday of Anger" demonstration on February 18, 2011, which saw thousands of Yemenis gather in major cities: "Women are risking everything to get rid of the oppressive regime. We feel that, for the first time, men and women are coming together - we participate as Yemenis first, with our gender being secondary."

To fully understand the significance of the role of women and the challenges that they had to overcome, it is necessary to understand what it means to be born a woman in Yemen. Female illiteracy runs at 70 percent, double the rate of men. Due either to a poor health system or a lack of services, an average of eight women die prematurely every day. There is no minimum legal age for marriage - when girls as young as 10 are married off, their young bodies are often not able to handle the birth process soon thereafter. They perish. Women raise children, cook, clean, tend the land and livestock - yet only seven percent earn a wage. In a country where almost every step a woman takes is circumscribed by rules and restrictions, the revolution created a unique opportunity to address Yemen's gender gap - one of the main drivers of the country's enduring underdevelopment.

Yemeni women continue to fight for rights

Since the toppling of the long-time dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen has entered a historic transition in which Yemenis are discussing a new constitution through a National Dialogue. The inclusiveness of this dialogue will determine the long-term future success and development of the country.

During the revolution, secularist and Islamist women alike spoke in a determined voice showing that the fight for their rights was not just for the sake of it. Rather, they engaged as citizens for the long-term good of their country as a whole. And there are plenty of socio-economic arguments to back up their demands for female civic, political and economic inclusion, one of them being that a country's productivity can drastically increase as gender equality increases, according to the World Development Report on Gender 2012.

A conference on "Gender and State-Building in the Middle East: Informing Yemeni Constitutional Reform with Global Lessons, Local Contexts" was recently held at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC. Practitioners and policymakers from various regions discussed how countries can best secure long-term reform for women's rights during periods of political change and economic uncertainty. Among global lessons was the example from Rwanda: in the difficult transition process after the genocide in 2004, it was decided to ensure effective participation of women in governance to take the country forward. Panelists also emphasised the time-sensitive window of opportunity prior to the drafting of the constitution during which to raise critical issues.

Amat Al-Alim Alsoswa, a member of Yemen's National Dialogue Conference, said that 161 women representatives are currently participating in the dialogue - this is an unusually high number for Yemen. Jamal Benomar, United Nations Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Yemen, emphasised that in order to make the exchanges meaningful, various factions - political, tribal and regional of both genders - would need to participate. So far, the national dialogue has managed to get Yemenis to talk to each other in a rather divided country by bringing various factions into the same room.

"This process in Yemen is unique," he said. "It is the only negotiated, transparent and participatory political transition in the Arab world."

It remains to be seen if women's access to and participation in political, economic and civic spheres will improve in the long run. As Yemen's Minister for Human Rights, Hooria Mashoor, said: "No-one can marginalise them (the women) now; they are now moving onwards."

Amina Semlali is a human development specialist and works on labour market and social protection issues for the World Bank's Middle East and North Africa Region.

Follow her on Twitter: @Amina_Semlali

A version of this article first appeared on the World Bank MENA blog.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy or the views of the World Bank.

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