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‘Yemeni women must be given a seat at the table’

Yemeni girls study in a school destroyed by the war in Taiz City, Yemen. Credit: Shutterstock/Akramalrasny

In March, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties after years of tension. That deal has paved the way for historic peace talks to end eight years of devastating war in Yemen, a conflict in which the Saudi and Iranian regimes are both entrenched. The main warring parties, the international recognized government and the Houthi movement in the north, have been making positive noises about a possible peace agreement. Recent prisoner swaps have offered further hope to exhausted Yemenis.

A temporary UN-brokered truce, which began in April 2022, first provided our country a degree of stability. Airstrikes and ground fighting significantly reduced, resulting in a dramatic drop in civilian casualties. Flights out of Yemen’s capital Sanaa recommenced and fuel ships were once again allowed to enter the port of Hudaydah on the Red Sea, which had been under a Saudi-imposed blockade. The truce also enabled humanitarian aid to be delivered to communities that were previously difficult to reach due to the intense conflict. But negotiations slowed around some contentious points and the ceasefire expired in October last year. Despite this, the country has not seen a return to full-blown fighting – but this could change unless the ongoing negotiations result in a lasting peace agreement.

Pushed to the brink

In 2015, a conflict erupted in Yemen between the internationally recognized government led by former Yemeni president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Houthi movement in Northern Yemen. The following year, a coalition led by the Saudis and UAE and supported by the US, UK and others, unleashed a military campaign on Yemen, in response to a call by Hadi’s exiled government for military support. Over the next eight years, brutal fighting decimated the country’s economy, pushing it into one of the world’s gravest humanitarian crises, with over 21 million people – two-thirds of the population – in need of aid. More than 19,000 civilians have been killed and over four million forced to flee their homes.

Women are seeding the ground for post-conflict recovery

Sales of UK and US arms to the Saudi-led coalition have fuelled a pattern of violence against civilians. Since the conflict broke out, Britain has licensed at least £7.9 billion ($9.7bn) in arms to Saudi Arabia. During the height of the war, hospitals, schools and homes were repeatedly hit by Saudi airstrikes. UK-made weapons have been used in attacks on civilian targets, according to analysis by Oxfam and other human rights organizations.

Imports of fuel, food, medicine and other supplies have been severely disrupted. A situation further exacerbated by recent global food shortages, and unprecedented rises in the prices of basic foodstuffs which have doubled. Everyday essentials have become unaffordable for many.

Despite the scale of the crisis, the humanitarian response in Yemen is severely underfunded, forcing many aid organizations to reduce or end critical support. A high-level pledging event in February 2023 reached just $1.2 billion of the $4.3 billion needed.

The world cannot continue to turn a blind eye to Yemen’s suffering. The international community has done little to speak out against those of its members who have helped fuel the war through arms sales and support for the warring parties. Now, alongside the UN Security Council, it must pressure all parties to stop the conflict and engage in an inclusive and sustainable peace process.

‘Women want a say on Yemen’s future’

In April, a Saudi delegation arrived in Sanaa to meet with Houthi officials for Oman-brokered talks aimed at reviving the lapsed truce. Though officials left without finalizing an agreement, reports of further talks continue to give us hope that peace may be within reach. Recent prisoner swaps between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis following separate UN-brokered talks in Switzerland also signal positive steps.

However, the exclusion of women and other marginalized groups from the peace process thus far is deeply worrying.

The war has had a disproportionate impact on women and girls, pushing 10 million of us into severe need of humanitarian assistance. Yemeni women face some of the gravest inequalities in the world when it comes to access to legal protection, justice, healthcare and education – a situation that continues to deteriorate. Recent restrictions on the movement of women – including female humanitarian workers – are exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. In 2022, in the North authorities restricted women from travelling without a male guardian. This has impeded the work of female humanitarian workers, some of whom don’t have a man to accompany them and who have subsequently had to quit their jobs, preventing vital assistance reaching vulnerable communities, especially to women.

In spite of the restrictions, women have facilitated access for struggling international aid efforts, supported reintegration programmes for child soldiers, opened humanitarian corridors and mediated in tribal disputes to release over 300 detainees. Through this crucial work, women are seeding the ground for post-conflict recovery. For the past eight years of conflict, Yemeni women have led humanitarian response efforts and women-led organisations have continued to work under severe funding shortages to reach the most impacted vulnerable groups across the country.

Now Yemeni women are demanding a place at the negotiating table, and at the forefront of the humanitarian response. Our voices must be heard so we can have a say on our future together and build a bright Yemeni generation far from violence. We want to be there in honour of the loved ones, homes and dreams we have lost to this devastating conflict.

We are exhausted but filled with hope and aspiration. Yemenis desperately need all parties to the conflict to reach a sustainable, political resolution that will lead to long-lasting peace. And that pursuit of peace needs to be an inclusive political process that includes Yemeni women, youth and civil society. Only then will Yemen – and all Yemenis – be able to rebuild their lives and plan for a safe and prosperous future.

Fatma Jaffar is Oxfam’s Policy and Advocacy Lead in Yemen’s capital Sanaa.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of New Internationalist.


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