A Gendered Crisis: Understanding the Experiences of Yemen’s War

photo by Yasser Abdualbaqi, Aden, 2016


Dr Fawziah Al-Ammar, Hannah Patchett & Shams Shamsan

 

Executive Summary

Few Yemenis have been spared the catastrophic impact of the Yemen War, but prevailing gender norms mean women and girls, and men and boys, have experienced the conflict differently. This report explores how gender norms have shaped Yemenis’ experience of conflict, and how conflict is reshaping gender norms in Yemen.

The report is based on qualitative research, including 88 focus group discussions conducted across Yemen from November 2018 to February 2019, 49 key informant interviews, six case studies and a literature review. The focus group discussions included 674 participants in eight districts representing different political and socio-economic contexts — near and far from the fighting and on both sides of the frontlines. These were: Al-Sabeen and Bani Harith in Amanat al-Asimah, Sana’a city; Mukalla and Sayoun in Hadramawt governorate; Sheikh Othman and Seera in Aden governorate; and Al-Shamayatan and Al-Qahira in Taiz governorate.

Focus group discussion participants and key informants in all areas perceived that financial strain has pressed women into the workforce, severely impacted boys and girls in terms of access to education and vulnerability to gender-based violence, and driven a rise in multiple forms of gender-based violence.

Prior to the current conflict, around half of Yemenis lived in poverty and more than 40 percent were food insecure.[1] The economy contracted by more than 40 percent during the first three years of the war,[2]  with many businesses collapsing or downsizing. More than 1.2 million public sector workers — and their families — were affected by the suspension of government salaries in September 2016.[3] Unemployment and underemployment, as well as salary suspensions and the depreciation of the Yemeni rial, have dragged the middle class toward or into poverty and those already in poverty into destitution. While payments to some public sector workers have resumed, some 20 million of Yemen’s 28 million people continue to face severe or acute food insecurity.[4]

Focus group discussion participants and key informants perceived women and men as having navigated the country’s new economic reality differently. Many said women were generally proactive and creative in seeking paid work, while some men were reluctant to work in jobs they considered unsuitable or were pressured – economically and by traditional definitions of masculinity — into joining fighting forces to support their families.

Some participants and key informants in all areas noted more positive male attitudes emerging during the war toward women working, saying, for example, that men increasingly seek brides who are employed in contrast to a pre-war tendency toward seeking a housewife. Indications were more mixed, however, as to whether women’s economic empowerment was expanding their influence in family decision-making or would last beyond the conflict – indicating an area where post-war support could be critical.

In exploring the gendered consequences of the conflict on Yemen’s youth, this report finds that the prospects of a generation of Yemeni boys and girls as well as young adults have been compromised by the conflict-driven devastation of education. War-related economic and security factors are magnifying the societal problem of early marriage, especially among girls, and are driving boys out of school and into the ranks of fighting forces.

Prior to the conflict, poverty and lack of access to schools in rural areas had limited families’ abilities to educate their children, and war has only compounded this problem. Yemenis report having to choose between feeding or educating their children, being unable to afford transport costs or school needs such as uniforms and books. With teachers unpaid or the value of their salaries depreciated by rampant inflation, many lack motivation, are preoccupied with securing extra outside income or have joined frontlines. Stress due to the war and economic collapse has affected teachers’ behavior toward students, and students report to class hungry and displaying symptoms of trauma.

War is also magnifying existing gender and power inequalities that lie at the root of gender-based violence (GBV). The imprecision and scarcity of baseline statistics on GBV in Yemen complicates efforts to identify trends, however participants and key informants perceived that the incidence of multiple forms of physical and sexual violence had increased during the conflict in the home and in public spaces. Focus group participants recounted incidents of rapes of girls and boys, within families, in schools and by armed men from security forces and militias. Participants and key informants also perceived increases in kidnappings, groping and verbal harassment of women and girls, and frustration was evident at what some participants said was growing impunity for perpetrators. Participants in all governorates said the absence of a functioning state had reduced access to justice for victims of physical and sexual violence. In addition, social protections against GBV had diminished, they reported, and a general rise in violence and weapons proliferation left bystanders afraid to intervene.

This report focuses on the gendered experience of the war in terms of the economic crisis, which was widely perceived to have magnified other existing domestic and societal issues facing women, girls, men and boys. It also looks closely at the gendered experience of the war on Yemen’s youths – boys and girls as well as young adults – and on the nature and, as much as possible within the limitations of the study, the extent of physical and sexual violence at home and in the community.

The following emerged as the key perceptions of focus group participants and key informants:

  • Women have shown resilience to economic challenges, displaying flexibility and innovation as they are pushed into seeking paid work. Women are starting businesses at home, online and in the community, and working in nontraditional sectors. Opportunities available to illiterate and uneducated women often have been precarious and low-paid.
  • Attitudes appear to be changing toward women working. Yet, the sustainability of their increased economic empowerment is uncertain. Shifts in household gender roles have been limited. Women’s economic empowerment often was associated with a diminution of men’s status.
  • Lack of income has undermined men’s traditional role as breadwinner and has affected family life. Men have moved to jobs of lower social status than their previous roles and have been driven to frontlines seeking a salary. Pressure to conform to masculine norms also has influenced the decision to fight.
  • Children are dropping out of school. Rising poverty has left parents unable to afford to educate their children. Girls are more likely to be withdrawn from school than boys, for cultural, economic and security reasons. Boys leave school to earn money — driven by family financial need — and sometimes to join armed groups. Armed violence at and near schools has stopped some parents from sending their sons and daughters to school.
  • Gender-based violence has increased during the conflict. Women and girls have been affected by rape, kidnapping, sexual harassment and domestic violence perpetrated by militias and community members as well as husbands, fathers and brothers. Sexual violence against boys is also widespread.
  • Financial insecurity is the primary driver of an increase in gender-based violence. Women also are blamed, by men and women, for violence against them.
  • The incidence of early marriage has risen. Girls are married early, driven by economic pressure and fears for their safety in an unstable security environment.
  • Impunity for gender-based violence is growing. Social protections have diminished and state and judicial systems are not functioning.

Recommendations are offered at the end of this report to guide domestic and international stakeholders to help alleviate the war’s varied impact on women, girls, men and boys. They are aimed at improving immediate situations, economically and in terms of reducing gender-based violence and trauma within families, in schools and in communities. Several recommendations also aim to stabilize families and to capitalize on women’s economic gains that have occurred during the war. They also seek to address necessary changes to basic legal, political and social elements that would help address deeper gender-based discrimination and violence – and improve the likelihood any empowerment gained during harsh years of war will be sustained in times of peace and rebuilding.

 

Key  Recommendations

  • Women must be meaningfully included in peace talks and in post-conflict political processes.
  • The warring parties must immediately release all child soldiers from military conscription.
  • The internationally recognized Yemeni government should resume full, regular salaries to public sector staff in all parts of Yemen.
  • All stakeholders should prioritize increasing school enrollment and improving the learning environment. Mechanisms could include training female teachers, providing transport and breakfast, as well as psycho-social support and restoring government scholarships.
  • Donors should invest in further research to inform interventions to address gender-specific trauma in Yemen.
  • Yemeni civil society, with local and international support, should engage tribal leaders to discourage child marriage.
  • Women’s increased economic participation should be supported. Further research is necessary on women’s roles in the informal economy and in rural areas.
  • In line with NDC recommendations, the post-conflict government should:
    • Ensure women are represented at all political levels, including cabinet portfolios.
    • Align Yemeni legislation to its international obligations relevant to gender.
    • Set a legal marriage age of 18 years for men and women.

 

Read the full report…

 


Notes

[1] “Yemen Household Budget 2014,” World Bank, as cited in “Yemen Poverty Notes,” World Bank, June 2017, documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/147231509378508387/pdf/Yemen-Poverty-Notes-Revised-0612.pdf

[2]  “Yemen’s Economic Update — October 2019,” World Bank, October 9, 2019, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/yemen/publication/economic-update-october-2019

[3]  Mansour Rageh, Amal Nasser and Farea al-Muslimi, “Yemen Without a Functioning Central Bank: The Loss of Basic Economic Stabilization and Accelerating Famine,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, November 2, 2016, https://sanaacenter.org/publications/main-publications/55

[4] “Yemen’s Economic Update — October 2019,” World Bank, October 9, 2019, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/yemen/publication/economic-update-october-2019

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