Muna Luqman, Co-founder of the Women Solidarity Network and Chairperson of the Yemeni foundation “Food For Humanity”, is sipping a cup of tepid filter coffee at WILPF’s secretariat in Geneva. It’s her second day in the Swiss city and the days have been busy with meetings and trainings. Together with her is Nisma Mansour, Field Coordinator for “Peace Track Initiative”, another Yemeni women-led NGO. Nisma Mansour, based in Aden in Yemen, has just arrived this morning. For the last seven days she was waiting in Jordan for her visa to be approved, not knowing if she would succeed in getting to Geneva. She did.
As Yemeni women activists and human rights advocates, they both know the drill. Despite all obstacles, they combine their grassroots work inside Yemen and in the diaspora with regular advocacy work around the world where they bring their causes to the public eye and to the agendas of decision makers. Advocacy work has become increasingly difficult with the tightening immigration laws, travel bans, and general hostilities against women from the global south, particularly those who come from conflict countries. However, they persevere, with the goal of conveying the voices of Yemeni women and bringing peace and freedom to their country.
But it is difficult for them to get their voices heard. As usual, attention is on the men with the arms, and not on the women with the solutions.
This is the reason why they are in Geneva.
“We are not giving up”
Tomorrow, 13 December 2018, the pre-session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Yemen will take place. Muna Luqman and Nisma Mansour represent a group of Yemeni grassroots organisations that have come together in advance of the UPR to submit a report to the UPR working group. The report was written by a coalition of six NGO’s in collaboration with WILPF and has already been submitted, in June 2018, and it is now time for the pre-session, where they have been selected as civil society speakers.
“I am very excited about participating in the pre-session. Already before the session, we have received a lot of positive attention from the media and international diplomats. As we are one of the few civil society organisations that made a submission, people are eager to hear our recommendations, and also to hear from us what’s really happening on the ground,” says Muna Luqman. Having a background in communications and advocacy, she is a strong public speaker and storyteller.
Nisma Mansour eagerly continues: “In a country where nobody really wants to listen to the women, then we take every chance we get to speak. The Yemeni government has refused to include us in the peace talks. They say it’s not the time for women’s issues now, that women’s agendas are a luxury problem. Being here, recognised by the international community as speakers at the pre-session, hopefully will make them take us more seriously.”
Muna Luqman nods. “They should not underestimate us. We are here for the long haul, and we are not giving up. Should peace get a chance in Yemen, then we will need women at the table,” says Muna Luqman and she starts listing the number of international key meetings that members of the Yemeni women’s coalition, Women Solidarity Network, have been present at during the last months, from Geneva Peace Week to side events in Sweden on the margins of the peace talks, over high level dialogue with prominent Syrian women with the EU in Belgium, and now to the UPR pre-session in Switzerland. The most significant instance was when one of their fellow activists, Rasha Jarhum, briefed the UN Security Council in November 2018 and provided a civil society perspective during the session around the situation in Yemen.
“As members of the Women Solidarity Network and as women activists, we work relentlessly to end bloody conflicts over water and land resources, to evacuate schools from armed groups, and to restore the rights of ours sons and daughters to education. We are risking our lives on a daily basis to rescue families trapped in conflict zones, and negotiating the opening of humanitarian corridors,” says Muna Luqman.
While the government of Yemen might be able to neglect the existence of these persistent women, the international community has started discovering the added value that the women are bringing to the stagnant peace talks .
Participation is essential to secure women’s rights
The work with the UPR submission had been intensive. Firstly, the organisations involved had never made a UPR submission before, and secondly, they needed to keep their focus on writing recommendations to the Yemeni government — as UPR recommendations are addressed to the State under review — knowing well that this would not give an exhaustive picture of the deteriorating situation of women’s rights in Yemen, nor would it cover the violations against women committed by other warring parties to the conflict.
“Our submission details many recommendations to the government of Yemen on six different topics. I think the international community’s focus will be on child soldiers and gender-based sexual violence, but I certainly also hope that attention will be on the need for women’s participation, enforced disappearances and use of explosive weapons,” explains Muna Luqman, arguing in a lively manner with her hands.
Ending the war in Yemen is one thing, getting transitional justice to its people another. The picture is complex, and the two Yemeni activists clearly know this.
“It is far from a simple situation. Everything is linked. While we need to lift the blockades in Yemen and end the siege of the city of Taiz in order to get humanitarian aid into those who are suffering, we also need to speak the truth and address the drivers of famine, for example, the existing corruption in the supply chains, to ensure unimpeded and safe humanitarian access,” say Muna Luqman and Nisma Mansour, speaking at the same time.
Missing voices, not silenced voices
Tomorrow, it is time for the pre-session. Supported by WILPF, Muna Luqman and Nisma Mansour have been preparing their oral statements. They will both be speaking and have divided the topics according to their areas of expertise.
“I really see it as my duty to speak and bring the voices of Yemeni women to the international community. We are also trying to speak to the Yemeni government, but they are not interested in what we have to say, so our strategy is really to get the international community to push for our inclusion. The more visible we are, the harder it is to silence us,” says Nisma Mansour.
“There is now a light in the dark tunnel of bloodshed, but if peace really happens, then we will need the right people to be part of the negotiations. Today, the negotiations are only taking place between the warring parties, namely the militias inside Yemen and the government who has fled to Saudi Arabia and has not been directly engaged with the people,” says Muna Luqman and continues: “Women are truly those who know what needs to be done. While the government has been in exile, we have been documenting what’s happening on the ground; we brought water, food, and oxygen to the hospitals, brought bread to the hungry, advocated for detainees to be released … the youth and women working at the grassroots level simply need to be part of the solution for Yemen.”
“When is it time to include women, if not now?” asks Nisma Mansour, speaking rhetorically, referring to their latest call with a High Standing Representative of the Yemeni Government, who didn’t even wanted to arrange a meeting with them, while the UN Envoy to Yemen and various diplomats spent two hours with them on a day packed with important meetings.
Publication out today
While the pre-session of the UPR of Yemen happens on 13 December 2018, the actual UPR takes place on 23 January 2019. The UPR submission has been turned into a publication called “Changes Ahead: Yemeni Women Map the Road to Peace” and it can be downloaded on WILPF’s website. In the publication, you are able to read in detail the Yemeni women’s analysis of what needs to be done, all their recommendations to the government, case studies and infographic.
The joint UPR submission has be prepared by the following six Yemeni organisations with the support of WILPF: Awam Foundation for Development and Culture, Ejad Foundation for Development, Food For Humanity, Peace Track Initiative, Sawasiah Organization for Human Rights, and To Be Foundation for Rights and Freedoms, all of which are members of the Yemeni Women Solidarity Network.