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Challenges, Setbacks and Opportunities: The Role of Women in Governance Amidst the Conflict in Yemen


As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, one of Proximity’s researchers, Dr. Alexandrine Dupras, takes a moment to reflect on the challenges facing Yemeni women amidst the country’s ongoing conflict.


Pre-Conflict Progress: Women's Inclusion in Governance

Before the onset of the conflict in 2015, Yemen had made significant progress advancing women's participation in the public sector. Drawing on a historical tradition of women's involvement in governance,[1] the country witnessed noteworthy developments in the decades preceding the 2015 conflict. Indeed, Yemen was the first country in the Arabian Peninsula to grant women the right to vote (in 1967).[2] Likewise, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, a series of policies and institutional frameworks were put in place to bolster women's engagement in the public sphere, leading to the recruitment and elevation of 1000s of women to prominent positions across public institutions. By 2015, a number of women had assumed high-profile roles. Amat Al Alim Alsoswa, for instance, was the ambassador to Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands, and Wahiba Faraʽa was the Minister of State for Human Rights.[3] Furthermore, a solid legislative foundation for supporting women in governance was put in place, providing women with rights to engage in the country’s political life and creating institutions at national and subnational levels to promote the rights of women and ensure their concerns were reflected in public policies, programs, and plans.


In the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” and the widespread civil unrest, Yemen became entangled in power struggles and regional conflicts, precipitating a period of internal turmoil.[4] However, even amidst this chaos, Yemen was a trailblazer in the region, embarking on a path toward a so-called inclusive transition. This strategy materialized through the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a 10-month negotiation process to build dialogue wherein 26.9% of its delegates were women. [5]


Gender Dynamics in Conflict: Impacts on Women's Participation

The protracted conflict has transformed Yemen's gender dynamics, eroding the previous achievements. The ascendance of conservative factions has hindered women's participation in meaningful political roles, with Yemen ranking 154 out of 156 countries in the 2021 Global Gender Gap report.[6] 


The conflict has undermined the effectiveness of salient institutions that were previously working to enhance the participation of women in the public sector. In 2001, for instance, the Ministry of Local Administration (MOLA) established Department of Women’s Development (DWD). The primary mandate of the DWD was to promote women’s involvement in public life. Subsequently efforts were made in 2009 to decentralize the DWD by establishing branches in districts, aiming to ensure broader representation and inclusion of women across Yemeni communities. The war undermined these endeavors. Amidst the fragmentation of government entities between Sana’a and Aden (alongside drastic budget constraints for ministries and public institutions), the DWD has remained largely inactive for several years. Although efforts were made to reinstate the DWD through a Resolution passed by the MOLA in areas controlled by the Internationally Recognized Government in 2022, it remains weak due to resource scarcity and constant instability.


Moreover, women's participation in governance in Yemen is also constrained by entrenched socio-cultural norms, the implications of which have become more acute amidst conflict. These norms delineate a division of labor between genders, relegating women to domestic and reproductive responsibilities, limiting their opportunities for engagement in public spheres such as governance.[7] Cultural and social norms bestow leadership roles on men in Yemen, with UN Women calculating that Yemeni women only hold 4.1% of leadership positions in the country in 2021.[8] Meanwhile, the mahram (male guardian) policy continues to restrict women's freedom of movement, hindering their general access to employment. Although it does not prohibit women from working, the requirement for women to be accompanied by a male relative during travel, particularly in areas controlled by the Houthis, severely restricts their mobility.


Some Opportunities to Move Forward

Despite the challenges facing women's participation in governance in Yemen, there have been notable efforts since 2015 to elevate their role in the peace process. Several initiatives have sought to address the current situation and empower women to assume greater roles in the public sphere.


The Peace Track Initiative (PTI) is as a women-led Yemeni organization established in 2015 with the mission of supporting the peace process and advocating for the inclusion of women and marginalized groups. PTI plays a pivotal role in feminist peacebuilding in Yemen, advocating for women's rights and emphasizing the significance of their participation in peace negotiations.


Another initiative, the Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security (known as Pact or “Tawafuq”), emerged from a conference organized by UN Women in Cyprus in 2015. This Track II initiative is dedicated to advancing peace and stability in conflict-affected regions by prioritizing women's perspectives in peace and security decisions. The Pact recognizes women's indispensable role in peacebuilding and strives to empower them to engage actively in decision-making processes, while also advocating for gender equality and women's rights as integral components of sustainable peace.


Furthermore, initiated in 2018 under the auspices of UN Women, the Feminist Summit serves as a consultative platform managed by women leaders. The summit is working to articulate a unified vision among women to influence the peace process in Yemen, fostering trust among women leaders and creating an inclusive space to support peacebuilding efforts. It also focuses on collaborative partnerships among women's organizations, advocating for women's rights, and facilitating the exchange of experiences and information to strengthen feminist advocacy efforts.


Entangled in regional conflict and the interests of foreign power, Yemen’s future is being shaped. Amidst this dire context, the long-term role of women in the country’s governance cannot be forgotten. International stakeholders need to work with Yemeni policymakers to acknowledge the invaluable role of Yemeni women in decision making. Yemeni women possess the insight and resilience necessary to help rebuild the nation – and their indispensable role in shaping Yemen's future cannot be overstated.


Alexandrine is a consultant specializing in international development sector and NGOs in the Middle East region. She holds a PhD in Sociology and has worked with several INGOs and third-sector organizations.


[1] Yemen has a long history of women being engaged in governance, stretching back to at least the 10th century BC with Queen Bilquis of Sheba and then Queen Arwa’s rule of the Sulayhid dynasty in the following century. See Fatima Mernissi, “The Forgotten Queens of Islam”, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

[2] Marta Colburn et al., “GAP III Yemen Country Profile Evaluation Report,” Third-Party Monitoring & Evaluation of Resilience Projects in Yemen in the Areas of Migration, TVET and Financial Inclusion, Report to the Delegation of the European Union to Yemen (Particip, 2021), 20.

[3] Colburn et al, “GAP III Yemen Country Profile Evaluation Report,” 2021, 20.

[4] Erica Gaston, “Process Lessons Learned in Yemen’s National Dialogue”, United States Institute of Peace, 2014.

[5] Moosa Elayah et al., “National Dialogues as an Interruption of Civil War – the Case of Yemen,” Peacebuilding Vol. 8, No. 1 (2020): 98–117; and Jamal Benomar, “Is Yemen a New Model?” Journal of International Affairs Vol. 67, No. 1 (2013): 197–203.

[6]. World Economic Forum, “Global Gender Gap Report 2021,” Insight report (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2021), 19, https://www.weforum.org/reports/global-gender-gap-report-2023/.

[7] Maha Awadh and Nuria Shuja’adeen, “Women in Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding in Yemen”, Nahj Consulting, 2019, 15.

[8] UN Women, “Yemen Data”, Women Count (2023), retrieved from: https://data.unwomen.org/country/yemen; see also Ali Ahmad, Zena. “Yemeni Women: Leading into the Future | United Nations Development Programme”, UNDP, 2023, https://www.undp.org/yemen/blog/yemeni-women-leading-future. 

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