Women as Peacebuilders in Yemen

Executive Summary and Key Findings

Marie-Christine Heinze & Sophie Stevens

YPC Policy Report   •   June 23, 2018


Main Findings

  • Gender-based violence (GBV) has increased since the conflict began, in both public and private. This is in line with international experience3 and includes domestic (emotional/ verbal, physical) violence; abduction; rape; sexual harassment in public spaces (by armed men); early marriage; and physical threats and attacks towards female activists.
  • Women are more economically active than they were before the war, as men have been injured, killed or lost their jobs. This has brought a sense of empowerment for women but has also caused tensions between men and women, leading to more domestic violence. There is a risk that positive changes will be reversed once conflict ends if not proactively supported.
  • Women are playing an essential role in delivering an impressive local humanitarian response and sustaining community services and structures, even under direct threat and with extremely limited resources. This is considered an acceptable, “natural” role for women in public life across Yemen, although the significance of their contributions is not always recognised nor sufficiently supported, which women activists perceive as an obstacle.
  • Local understandings of peace are based on a broad human security framework emphasising basic services and jobs. Efforts by women to address poor living conditions, livelihoods and humanitarian need are understood as contributions to peace and stability.
  • Changes in the religious environment have had particular effects on women, especially a rise in radical religious rhetoric and greater influence of Islamist actors. In some areas (Ta‘iz and Lahij), this has resulted in severe threats and violence against women activists and restrictions on women’s movement.
  • Women activists are often cooperating effectively with local governance structures and local leaders are receptive to women’s involvement in public institutions, although women are still generally excluded from formal decision-making and political structures.
  • Women are engaged in resolving conflicts, promoting peace, and providing security in a limited way in some areas. This includes directly mediating inter-tribal conflicts and conflicts over public resources, working as police officers (a few in urban centres), screening women at checkpoints, and supporting resistance fighters with food, money and moral support.


1.) Continue to prioritise life-saving humanitarian support, including GBV mitigation and response, across conflict-affected parts of Yemen

The current UK focus on humanitarian aid in Yemen should be considered an opportunity to empower women, in line with UK commitments in the National Action Plan (NAP) 2018-2022 on women, peace and security. For DFID and its humanitarian partners, taking a gendered approach is essential to deliver effective responses, but will also help to sustain positive changes to gender roles emerging during conflict and strengthen women’s leadership and participation. At a minimum, this should include ensuring the participation of women-led civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists in decision-making on humanitarian aid. We recommend that DFID’s Humanitarian Team and other humanitarian donors explore:

a.) Encouraging humanitarian organisations to partner with local women-led CSOs to design and deliver humanitarian aid, being careful not to simply use them as distribution mechanisms but to build their capacity to meet their own objectives.4 These CSOs and their leaders are experts in the needs, risks and entry points in each location and are ideally placed to advise international partners. Such partnerships should however assess risk of, and take steps to mitigate, backlash from men in the area who may feel excluded from job opportunities generated by humanitarian aid (see 3.a and 5.a below).

b.) Providing support and training to women involved in humanitarian activities, such as psychosocial support, training them to be ‘family experts’ for other women in their communities, and to build networks with other women in similar roles beyond their area.

2.) Address the causes of GBV and strengthen services for survivors

GBV should not be regarded as inevitable effect of conflict. From international experience we know it has the potential to cause further violence, e.g. revenge attacks, to undermine peacebuilding and stability efforts and long-term recovery. Effective responses do exist. We recommend the UK explore the potential for further action along the following lines:Support public communications campaigns to address gender-based violence. This could include using local media platforms to remind people of the existing social values and norms surrounding protecting women in public and private. A campaign could be implemented in partnership with women activists to ensure local appropriateness, as part of other strategic communications and norm change work (see below).

a.) Encourage international humanitarian organisations to better mainstream GBV into their sector programmes and establish standalone GBV services for survivors, in line with the Call to Action on Protection from Gender Based Violence in Emergencies and the agreed Roadmap made in 2016.5 This should include integrating the minimal initial service package (MISP) into all humanitarian response,6 as well as psychosocial support to both women and men (and specifically to couples and communities) affected by conflict, violence and economic hardship to support survivors and address the drivers of GBV perpetration, in line with global evidence.7

b.) Promote peace, tolerance and gender equality among school children and youth through school-linked peace clubs. This approach has been implemented successfully in contexts such as Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan to address GBV and harmful gender norms within a wider pro-peace framework, and has been proven to reduce both levels of violence experienced by children as well as risk factors for perpetration (men) and experience (women) of GBV in later life. Women activists in Yemen are already promoting peace in schools and with youth so this would fit well with their existing activity.

3.) Support women’s roles in conflict prevention, peacebuilding and mediation

Existence of traditional norms regarding women’s roles in resolving conflict offers an opportunity, but may be under threat. Women activists also cite a lack of recognition of women’s contributions to conflict prevention, peace and stability as an obstacle. There may be space to do more to sustain networks between women working in this area, share ideas and experiences and encourage further action. We recommend that the UK considers:

a.) Promoting awareness of women’s contributions to peace, stability and development through dialogue and strategic communication, in collaboration with local women activists. This could include local dialogue meetings, billboards, radio and TV discussions on the positive roles women have played during the conflict, profiling local women role models, and engaging influential men in discussion – traditional, religious and political leaders. It could also involve working with moderate imams on religious education, shown to be a protective factor against radicalisation. Such work should consider risk of backlash and seek to promote positive examples of men and women working for peace and stability together.

b.) Establishing local ‘family centres’ with female staff only as a place women can turn to for advice and support, together with local activists and with the support of local authorities. We found that there are no places women can turn to for help outside of the family, and yet women supporting other women is generally considered acceptable.

c.) Supporting and promoting gender-sensitive peace dialogue. Many Yemeni activists speak positively of “dialogue tents” set up during the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Such an initiative could be revived in partnership with local women activists and CSOs, integrating a focus on family-related issues and conflicts which are considered acceptable for women to engage in.

Risks of doing harm should be carefully considered in relation to any direct support to women as mediators or in conflict resolution. In some areas, such as where women are capitalising on tribal norms and customs, external support may undermine local legitimacy.

4.) Support women’s roles in civil society and local governance structures

Even operating under hardline Islamist restrictions, women have some space and agency to support victims of conflict and sustain communities. Preserving and if possible expanding this space to operate is essential. Local governance actors are also relatively open to, and would benefit from, women’s greater participation in decision-making processes. Options to consider include:

a.) Provide broad-based capacity-building support to civil society, such as establishing civil society resource centres where CSOs can access IT, training and technical advice on fundraising or implementation; facilitating peer networking between civil society leaders (technology and in-person meetings); and providing small-scale financial and in-kind support where this can be done without risking capture.

b.) Provide targeted support to women activists and CSOs. This could include training in peacebuilding and conflict mediation, and peer networking between women activists. Such support would complement the above and could be integrated into a wider civil society support programme or be linked to a women, peace and security initiative.

c.) Promote inclusive local governance structures through small-scale support to local councils and similar structures which incentivises the inclusion of women in leadership and decision-making processes. The Social Fund for Development (SFD) has successfully implemented a ‘microfund’ of this kind to some local councils – this could be a model to support in more stable areas.

5.) Strengthen economic recovery and jobs

Greater economic empowerment of women is a common, positive effect of conflict, but in some cases reverses after the re-establishment of peace. Preserving the space for women’s participation in economic activity will require active support. Inclusive economic development will also address conflict drivers in Yemen. We recommend that the UK and other donors:

a.) Support inclusive economic recovery and livelihoods programming, in partnership with women-led CSOs and with targeted support to women. Unemployment/loss of livelihoods is having a direct impact on GBV as well as contributing to vulnerability to extremism in more unstable areas. Inclusive (men and women, youth, not just IDPs/ former combatants) livelihoods programming, incorporating direct or ring-fenced support targeted towards women to sustain positive changes to economic roles, would contribute to stability and gender empowerment in communities worst affected by conflict and deteriorating living conditions.

6.) Support women as security actors

In some areas women are playing an active role in local security. Research findings suggest that some communities are supportive of women’s greater engagement in local security, particularly in relation to GBV and family matters. Options for UK support include:

a.) Establish and support women, peace and security fora in more stable areas. This could be a multi-agency forum bringing together women activists and civil society leaders with security agencies, humanitarian response and protection agencies, local government and community leaders to address local issues related to women, peace and security. Discussing child and youth security would be a locally appropriate entry point. This has been supported successfully by the UK in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo and could work in Ma’rib, with potential to expand elsewhere.

b.) Support to women in the police: Where present, women police officers could be trained and supported to provide more effective security on the street for women, address family issues and respond to GBV. Small-scale, piloted support where the community seems receptive and policewomen are already present (e.g. Ma’rib city) could sow the seeds for larger scale community safety work. Strategic communications work on women’s roles and GBV could also incorporate positive images of policewomen.

c.) As part of longer-term security and justice programming in more stable areas: establish women’s sections in police stations in urban centres with a separate entrance for women, female staff, separate women’s cells and bathrooms. This could be an expansion of the two activity areas above, and linked to local reform of security and justice services where possible, establishment of local Family Centres, shelter homes and support to women-led CSOs. We know that women rarely report GBV (or other crimes) due to an absence of female officers and fear of further violence from the police, and yet evidence suggests that women, particularly those most marginalised (IDPs, muhammasheen), would like to do so. This would be an important step forward in encouraging reporting and response to GBV and in strengthening women’s participation in local security.