Long before the armed conflict started in 2015, Yemen was already in the midst of a protracted crisis. For many years, Yemenis have endured the repercussions of widespread poverty, weak rule of law, and a range of human rights violations. This crisis has now been exacerbated by the ongoing armed conflict; the UN Humanitarian Affairs Coordination Office (OCHA) estimates that nearly 24 million people in Yemen are in need of humanitarian assistance. Displacement, famine, the outbreak of cholera, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances are only some of the sources of the deep insecurity that now scars a country in ruins. And of course women are bearing the brunt.

According to OCHA, more than 75% of internally displaced persons are women and children, and around 20% of households of internally displaced persons as well as host communities are headed by women below the age of 18. Yet, unsurprisingly, Yemeni women are systematically excluded from key processes affecting their own lives.

Yemeni women bring the cases of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances to the Human Rights Council

WILPF stands to counteract that. Last week in Geneva, WILPF in partnership with Peace Track initiative, a Yemeni women-led organisation working on localising peacebuilding and amplifying the voices of women and youth for sustainable peace, co-organised a side event on the margins of the 42nd session of the UN Human Rights Council about Yemeni women leaders experiences and initiatives in addressing issues of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances in the country. Besides highlighting the disproportionate impact on Yemeni women and girls of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention, our side-event also created a unique space for Yemeni women leaders to share lessons learnt from some of the initiatives, led by women themselves, that have had success releasing detainees through local mediation.

Lina Al Hassani, Director of the To Be Foundation For Rights and Freedoms, made a compelling case that arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances affect women disproportionately. Yemeni women human rights defenders and political activists, she explained, are very often stigmatised after their release; and she laid out in full the catastrophic economic and social effects of detention on women and their families, before shedding light on the long-term psychological trauma they face. Women are all too often left to suffer on their own, she explained.

Dr Amat Al Salam, head of the Mothers of Abductees Association, argued how the UN approach to the issue of arbitrary detention in Yemen has been problematic.

The UN- led efforts, she argued, did not distinguish between prisoners of war and civilian detainees. “We defend the civilian prisoners who were taken from their places of work, who have been kidnapped from their homes. Those are the innocent ones who never participated in the war but yet were arbitrarily detained for political gains. The UN approach mixed the two, which hindered our work. We were putting pressure on leaders through social mobilisation, through protesting and through direct lobbying, when the UN stepped in without consulting women. The whole issue became extremely politicised and significantly impeded the work of mothers to release their loved ones,” stated Dr Amat Al Salam.

Dr. Al Salam maintained that even when prisoner exchanges happen, they do not properly safeguard the prisoners’ protection and future. Some of the prisoners were released and taken to cities to which they had no connection, with no money or resources; resulting in many of them joining the fighting.

The panellists also drew attention to the poor mental and physical condition of all the prisoners released from captivity, especially in Houthi-controlled areas, and how negotiating parties were prone to regard detained persons as lone individuals, rather than considering the multidimensional impacts of detention on them, their families and the community at large.

“Yemeni mothers have lost their trust in the UN and other stakeholders. For when mothers go to ask the Houthi rebels or other key players about the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones, the answer very often is that the file on detainees and abductees is now in the hands of the UN. This politicisation of the issue made very difficult for us to do our job,” said Dr Amat Al Salam

Lina Alhasani and  Noura Al-Jarwi speak at the side event held on the margins of the 42nd session of the Human Rights Council

In our joint submission with Yemeni partner organisations “Yemeni Women Map the Road to Peace”, we highlighted how arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances have been used as a tactic of war by all warring parties to the conflict, primarily to target political opposition and contain dissent. Women human rights defenders are intentionally targeted, and as a result many families have resorted to preventing their girls from going to school as a coping mechanism, and incidences of underage marriages have increased.

Noura Al-Jarwi, Director of Coalition Of Women For Peace In Yemen was herself a target of such arbitrary detention. She and another 77 women were detained for protesting peacefully. She said she had a lucky escape as the OHCHR aided her release, but some of her colleagues were hanged by the Houthis.

“Most the women we work with and many other female human rights defenders are subjected on a daily basis to a wide variety of oppressive measures designed to silence them, including sexual abuses and arbitrary detention,” said Noura Al-Jarwi.

Rasha Obaid, Economic and Post War Recovery Director at Peace Track Initiative, went on to explain how excluding women from the peace process and failing to take their priorities into account exacerbates the inclusivity of the process and its disconnect with what’s happening on the ground. This exclusion leads to women-led initiatives addressing arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances being increasingly overlooked, and is sometimes forcing many of them to choose one side in the conflict over the other. For example, some mothers decided publicly to declare support for government forces in the hope that their loved ones be released. But this only complicated their situation further, says Rasha Obaid.

At the end of the side event, what emerged as key recommendations from the Yemeni women is, (1) for all warring parties to immediately release all arbitrarily detained persons (2) for the UN to take steps to ensure the meaningful and effective participation of Yemeni women across all tracks of the peace process and (3) for those who perpetrated human rights violations to be held accountable.