Women and democratic transition in Yemen

In a country where women suffer systematic disadvantages in economic and social development, seemingly small changes can be dramatic.

A woman holds the Yemenite national flag (photo credit: REUTERS)
A woman holds the Yemenite national flag
(photo credit: REUTERS)
According to a Yemeni proverb, “A girl leaves the house only twice: to her husband and her grave.” Characterizations of the recent crisis in Yemen as a failure of democracy ignore the social and political changes that have occurred in the past four years, often led by women. They also point to the need for Americans to temper their expectations when it comes to the complex and often decades-long process of building democracy.
Before the revolution in 2011, Yemen was ruled for over three decades by a corrupt elite that amassed huge wealth from the country’s oil reserves. Faced with a youth bulge, acute poverty, a separatist movement in the south, a decade of Houthi insurgency and an expanding presence of al-Qaida within its borders, Yemen’s transition to a peaceful, stable and inclusive democracy has, understandably, proven challenging.
Last September when Human Rights Watch honored Arwa Othman, Yemen’s culture minister, for her work in advancing women’s rights, she called for tolerance in her country and dedicated her award to “brothers and friends from the Jewish community.”
This was important for two reasons. First, Othman’s statement was a rare public acknowledgment of the plight of Yemen’s Jews. Yemen was home to one of the oldest and largest Jewish communities in the Middle East. If you look hard enough, you can still find a Star of David in some of the decorative multicolored stained-glass windows that grace homes in Sana’a.
Following centuries of persecution, today there remain fewer than 90 Jews in Yemen. While historical injustices against the Jews will not vanish overnight, critical steps have been taken to end discrimination against and social exclusion of women and minority groups such as Al-Akhdamin.
The country’s national dialogue for democratic transition supported legislative and institutional reforms aimed at the political system, as well as civil and political rights.
Equally significant is the recognition Othman received for her efforts in enshrining gender equality in Yemen’s laws. For the past several years, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report has ranked Yemen the worst country for women based on economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.
In 2013, Othman headed a committee on “rights and freedoms” as part of the process for constitutional reform. Committees were responsible for drafting recommendations for changes in the constitution. Many of the recommendations supported women’s rights such as enhancing women’s political participation, combating violence against women and ending child marriage.
Increasingly, concerns about the status of women and girls are present in Yemeni political discourse. Such changes are considerable in a country where women suffer systematic disadvantages in economic and social development.
But Othman is in no way a lone voice. She is representative of a larger women’s movement in Yemen that has been championing democracy, pluralism, human rights and rule of law. Yemeni activists such as Othman understand that women’s political participation strengthens democracy, and democracy is an incubator for gender equality.
In 2011 women took to the streets to protest poverty, lack of economic opportunity, gender inequity, poor governance, neglect of public services and social exclusion in Yemen. In 2015 Yemeni women should be supported in getting their country back on the road to democracy.
Fortunately for Yemen, girls are leaving the house more than twice.
The author is executive director of the AHA Foundation, a women’s rights organization based in New York, and managed US government- funded democracy and governance programs in Yemen from 2010 to 2013.