This is my third visit to Sana’a, and it coincides with this year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence campaign, whose global theme seems particularly apt for Yemen, a country with a dreadful women’s rights record, and a seemingly endless history of wars and insurgencies.
On 26 November, WILPF’s Yemeni partners, HRITC, ran the second workshop in a series in our MENA 1325 project focusing on women, peace and security in the Arab uprisings. About 60 people attended the workshop and at least a third was men.
I jokingly remarked that Yemen is the only one of WILPF’s MENA partners that ever makes its quota! What it shows of course, in a Yemeni society torn apart by armed conflict, is that men’s interest in the new solutions offered when we work on gender, demilitarisation, peace and security, matches that of women.
The workshop was based on three high-quality working papers. The first, by Lina Haldrah, gave an overview of recommendations from the first series of HRITC field workshops on SCR 1325 held in Aden, Taez and Sana’a earlier this year. She offered a list of 19 recommendations reached after this consultation process.
Then Maha Awadh gave an overview of the findings from the Geneva workshop in June. Among other points, she observed how important it had been for her to learn that, despite different concepts of women’s rights in MENA countries, participants had found many shared concerns.
She also spoke of the timeliness of this project in Yemen, where SCR 1325, despite its manifest importance as a tool that both complements CEDAW and advances the Beijing Platform for Action, has received virtually no attention. She stressed the importance of creating a National Action Plan to activate SCR 1325 on the ground.
Sara Jamal, a young human rights activist, delivered an excellent paper on women’s role in transitional justice. She started by challenging the relevance of the term: “how long is a transitional period in Yemen? Some have been living in ‘transition’ since the 1970s, or the war in the 1990s – and now we are caught up in this so-called ‘war on terrorism’ even though we’re attempting a civilian-led transition after 33 years of military dictatorship,” she observed.
She expounded on the steadfastness of women’s contribution to resistance across the decades, observing that their participation, both in numbers and substance, had only been undermined in recent months after Political Islamists “began a campaign of oppressing women in Change Square which turned it into a conflict zone, not a place of non-violent resistance, in order to enforce an Islamist agenda to remove women from public spaces.”
She asserted that it was only after political parties made an effort to divide women and men that sexual harassment became a problem on the streets; until then, the uprising was seen as an effort to unseat a dictator that was a legitimately shared challenge of all Yemenis. She concluded her paper with questions on how effective a new Constitution for Yemen could possibly be if women were excluded from its drafting.
A lively discussion followed, ably chaired by two young graduates from a Swedish training course on SRC 1325. Participants delved into many important aspects of the broader human security agenda, raising issues of women’s poverty, lack of healthcare, food and water insecurity and other related issues.
A policeman in the audience announced that he had attended the meeting of this own accord because he wanted to find out more about how to build police capacity to offer responsive services to woman. A couple of commentators observed that Sana’a University would be a good place to establish a formal programme of research on women, peace and security. The role of the media in promoting peace and gender equality was also a recurring theme.
The workshop concluded with a concrete recommendation to set up a ‘1325 task force’ in a partnership between civil society and government, though which to advance the process of preparing a National Action Plan.
Each time I come to Yemen, I gain greater respect for the wonderful young people of the 2011 uprising. Nowhere else in the MENA have I encountered such selfless and committed human rights activists, who, filled with the zest of a young generation determined to tackle and heal the numerous and ongoing violences to which they are still subject, have big dreams about the nation they wish to build. Yet I fear that the storms of war have not left this beleaguered peninsula, and that forces are at work to control Yemen that reach far beyond anything that can be done by a group of committed young change-makers in Sana’a.
The US, for one, is enlarging its independent military base and troop presence, against the wishes of almost all Yemenis. It has already killed several Yemeni civilians with unmanned drones, which it justifies using in a seemingly endless ‘war on terror’ whose only tangible results so far appear to have been to radicalize a new generation of young men who do not have access to the advantages available in the capital city.
I fervently hope that projects such as WILPF’s will continue to spark debate, channel energies and build capacity to work on gender and security issues both in Sana’a and beyond, in the deeply deprived rural areas. My heart is with my young Yemeni friends as they continue their struggle for the vibrant, inclusive and above all peaceful society that they first began to dream of in Change Square.
By Vanessa Farr