Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Women’s Challenges, and Opportunities, in Yemen

by Isobel Coleman
February 19, 2014

A woman holds the national flag during a parade in Sanaa, Yemen, May 2011 (Courtesy Reuters/Ammar Awad). A woman holds the national flag during a parade in Sanaa, Yemen, May 2011 (Courtesy Reuters/Ammar Awad).

Earlier this month, I hosted Abdul Karim Ali Al-Eryani, former prime minister of Yemen, at a Council on Foreign Relations discussion. Al-Eryani recently concluded his role as a leader of Yemen’s ten-month-long National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a process that brought together rival political, tribal, religious, and social groups to craft a roadmap for the country’s political transition. Although Yemen is still struggling with escalating violence, secessionist threats, and a humanitarian crisis of poverty and malnourishment, the inclusive NDC was widely hailed for at least pulling the country back from the brink of civil war.

The conference culminated in a report that included some 1,400 recommendations that will now form the basis for drafting the country’s new constitution. Interestingly, when asked what he saw as the major achievements of the NDC, Al-Eryani was quick to note gains for women.

The NDC explicitly sought to include women. Women made up 30 percent of NDC members, were represented in all nine working groups, and chaired three of those groups – a big step forward from previous national dialogues in which women’s voices were largely excluded. The NDC also recommended adopting a 30 percent quota for women in all branches of government and a legal end to child marriage. Although both of these recommendations will be undoubtedly hard to implement, they provide a basis on which to build for advancing women’s rights in Yemen.

The 30 percent quota for women was particularly controversial in the NDC, with some factions preferring a lower quota of 15 percent and others opposing it all together. (Opponents wielded the usual brick-bat of there not being enough “qualified” Yemeni women to support a quota.)  Moreover, the NDC recommendations are just that – recommendations – so there is no guarantee that all the provisions will make it into the new constitution.  Even if the quota is codified into law, there is no guarantee it will be implemented or that women in office will advance women’s rights or simply toe their party’s (more-often-than-not conservative) line.

Some have raised legitimate concerns that the quota could evolve as simply window dressing for women in Yemen and make little difference on the ground. If it does adopt the quota, Yemen will follow the path of post-revolution Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, which have all adopted quotas to ensure women’s political participation (in Egypt’s case – its latest constitution states that 25 percent of municipal seats will be reserved for women.) As the mixed experience of other countries has shown, quotas are hardly a silver bullet, but can still be an important step toward increasing women’s political participation.

The NDC’s recommendation to set the age of marriage for boys and girls at eighteen will also be challenging to make a reality. Yemen has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world – an estimated 52 percent of girls in Yemen are married before the age of eighteen, and 14 percent before age fifteen. Islah, the influential Islamist party, has opposed setting a legal age for marriage in the past (in 1999, Islah was instrumental in abolishing the existing age of marriage – which was then fifteen – on the grounds that it contravened Sharia). But after the conclusion of the NDC, Islah members acknowledged the recommendation on setting the age of marriage at eighteen and stated that the party would not oppose such legislation.

Still, even with a law on the books, changing the deeply ingrained traditional practice of marrying girls off at very young ages will take decades to change – with lots of grassroots education about the ills of child marriage and local enforcement required. Since the NDC final report also includes a recommendation to make Sharia the primary source of legislation, expect ongoing conflict between the strong equality language proposed by the NDC and existing family laws that discriminate against women.

The reality is that women in Yemen are still denied many legal rights and treated as second-class citizens. Yemen now faces the grueling process of drafting and ratifying a new constitution in a greatly divided country. Consensus will be hard to reach and laws difficult to enforce, especially given Yemen’s ongoing security crisis. The NDC was an important first step, bringing together an unprecedented diversity of stakeholders, but the real battle for Yemen’s future still lies ahead.

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