Author’s note: Much of the reference to Yemen was drawn from the recent publication: “Rebuilding Yemen: Political, Economic and Social Challenges” (2015).
By: Joana Cook
Today marks the 2016 International Women’s Day, where the year’s theme “Pledge for Parity” promotes areas extending from helping women and girls achieve their ambitions, calling for gender-balanced leadership, and encouraging respect and value of difference.
It is perhaps fitting then to highlight what was for many a key struggle to achieve parity. Five years have now passed since the 2011 Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The protests were largely driven by populations seeking an end to corrupt and oppressive authoritarian regimes, who demanded dignity, equality and justice in their societies. Women and youth were foremost amidst these, participating in protests in Libya and Tunisia, occupying Tahrir Square in Egypt, and challenging the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria (amongst others).
While countries such as Tunisia have been able to emerge from these protests with fragile, transitional democratic governments, others such as Syria and Libya have descended into states of chaos, destabilizing the surrounding region and creating vacuums currently filled by groups such as the so-called ‘Islamic State’. Yemen, perhaps the most overlooked of these Arab Spring participants, deserves special recognition for the roles that women were able to carve for themselves in the early days of the Arab Spring, and the gains they were able to advance. Yemen too, perhaps highlights what is most at stake for the parity of women with the failure to solidify these ambitions.
Yemen was always going to be a challenging country to advance parity. Yemen is currently ranked on the UN Human Development Index as 160 out of 188. It’s gender equality rating is the worst in the world – the World Economic Forum’s Gender Equality Index places Yemen 142 of 142 countries. Prior to 2011, Yemen only featured a single woman in parliament and three in the Shura council. Despite these long-standing poor rankings however, women such as Tawakal Karman and others from diverse backgrounds initiated and led protests across the country which eventually led to the transition of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Karman later won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts and brought attention to the significant efforts of many other brave and dedicated women across the country.
The subsequent National Dialogue Conference (NDC) contained nine working groups that addressed key transitional issues such as military and security, development and transitional justice. While an imperfect process, the NDC was deemed a success by many around the world, and significantly 27% of participants in the conference were women. The outcomes of the NDC were forwarded to the constitutional drafting committee and a draft constitution was completed in January 2015. This constitution, which had not yet been ratified, was extraordinary in the advances it guaranteed for women.
The draft constitution highlighted the representation and support of women in areas ranging from leadership and participation in political bodies, to supporting their roles in the security sector (police, military and intelligence) and ensured the State would “eliminate negative cultural and social norms that demean the dignity of women” (Article 57). Article 76 went so far as to state, “To give effect to the principle of equal citizenship, the State shall enact legislation and take measures, to achieve effective political participation for women to ensure access to at least 30% in various authorities and bodies.” While the substance of such articles needed to be further articulated, and the constitution was set to be debated prior to ratification, the leaps and bounds inherent to the protections and promotions of women in this document were incredible.
However, due to a number of avoidable factors and failures, this transition was interrupted and the situation for women has never been more dire. The constitution in its current format also seems unlikely to move forward and the very status of the state is currently in question. In March 2015, Operation Decisive Storm began in an effort to stop Houthi rebels from seizing power in the country has in many respects shattered the country – the War in Yemen has now stretched almost a year and the country is on the brink of the abyss. 21 million of the countries 24 million now need some form of humanitarian aid and over 3,000 have been killed, many in coalition air strikes (though this figure is expected to be much higher). Groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the so-called Islamic State continue to make advances in the country, and have historically installed harsh interpretations of sharia law over the populations they control, including severe restrictions on the rights of women.
Furthermore, displaced populations face significant challenges, and women in particular face an increased risk of sexual assault and abuse (even within their families, as public pressures grow and manifest themselves in the private sphere, increases in domestic violence often occur). There has also been a noticeable increase in the number of child brides amongst fleeing populations, with families unable to care for their children. Education, employment and other key activities to ensuring the advancement of women in the country is attainable have been interrupted or ceased all together. Perhaps most critically, negotiations to end the conflict have reflected a notable absence of women, particularly from the government side. In essence, it appears as though the significant opportunities that once appeared for women in Yemen have all but vanished.
As highlighted by the case of Yemen, it is clear that women in these societies have been integral to significant social, economic, cultural and political achievements before and during the Arab Spring. It is also clear that for many of them, advances to their rights and aspirations to parity have never been at such risk.
This International Women’s Day, it is perhaps worthwhile then to remember then that while parity in general is as worthy a focus as any, such considerations must be reflected in the very fabric of conflict mediation, resolution and reconstruction that will be required in places such as Yemen, Syria and Libya.
Joana Cook is a PhD Candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her PhD analyzes the roles of women in counterterrorism practices post-9/11. Her broader academic interests revolve around extremism and terrorism, with a focus on Canada, the US, UK and Middle East. She is also a researcher for the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS). You can follow her on Twitter @Joana_Cook.
 Joana Cook, ed. “Our Main Concern Is Security”: Women’s Political Participation, Engagement in the Security Sector, and Public Safety in Yemen, Rebuilding Yemen: Political, Economic and Social Challenges (Gerlach Publishing, 2015).
 For a good background on this, see: Adam Baron, “Civil War in Yemen: Imminent and Avoidable,” in Policy Memo, ed. European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) (23 March 2015).