LOS ANGELES — Since the start of the Yemen crisis in 2015, ongoing humanitarian issues have been a key priority for international organizations like the United Nations and watchdog groups and NGOs. Providing effective and appropriate humanitarian assistance and aid to Yemen has been an ongoing sociopolitical challenge that has been widely discussed throughout the world.
But what has often been overlooked in the crisis is the acknowledgment of how different groups of Yemeni citizens are experiencing the conflict differently. In particular, the extreme circumstances of the country’s seven-year-long instability have led many to ignore how Yemeni women often bear the brunt of the issues caused by the crisis, on top of the gender-based challenges they face due to the discriminatory legal system and the crisis’s effect on the level of gender-based violence.
Data about the Yemen crisis’s death toll varies depending on if one focuses on those affected directly by the conflict or if it is extended to deaths caused indirectly. According to the Yemen Data Project, the country has incurred over 18,000 attacks, of which around half were deaths and half were injuries, as a direct result of the conflict from 2016 to now. This, however, does not include casualties caused by other pressing humanitarian issues the crisis in Yemen has created. The United Nations estimates that over 131,000 have died as a result of the indirect effects of the war in Yemen, including factors such as hunger and lack of access to adequate health services.
According to the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), a humanitarian non-governmental organization focused on the fight against poverty, an average of six women are killed every day in Yemen due to the conflict. Women and children are also frequently displaced, comprising 75% of displaced individuals. The majority of displacement in Yemen is internal, with Yemenis moving from place to place within the country to avoid fighting, famine, and disease. Some of the displaced are met with humanitarian aid when they arrive at new locations, such as in Marib where the UNHCR, UN, and International Organization for Migration have attempted to provide food and shelter to those fleeing the city of Al Suwayda.
Women are often disproportionately affected by humanitarian crises in times of civil unrest or war. In the case of Yemen, this inequality is exacerbated as women’s access to work is heavily limited by socio-cultural norms.
For 14 years, Yemen was ranked last in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index, and only in 2021 did it manage to be ranked second to last — ahead of newly-added Afghanistan. According to the 2021 index, Yemen is one of the countries with the largest economic gender gap, at 28.2% of the gap closed so far, and income gap, with women’s income being around 7% that of men. It also has one of the lowest percentages of women in the labor force, at 6.3%, and the lowest number of women in managerial positions, at 4.1%. On top of this, Yemen was ranked 154/156 in female economic participation and opportunity, 152/156 in educational attainment, 95/156 in health and survival, and 154/156 in political empowerment.
This is likely the result of an extremely patriarchal culture in Yemen, rooted in persistent and extreme gender roles. Yemeni women and girls experience forced niqab (a veil that covers the whole face excluding the eyes), divorce shame, child marriage, domestic violence, and honor killings — all of which are aggravated by the extended and ongoing crisis in the country.
According to Amnesty International, the crisis has forced Yemeni women to take on greater roles and responsibilities than traditionally expected of them and, as a result, the levels of violence they experience have increased. Women and girls not only face extreme danger due to the crisis and fighting in the region between the Houthis and Yemeni Forces (supported by UAE and Saudi Arabia backed anti-Houthi forces), but also security and economic risks due to a discriminatory legal system. Left with a damaged system of services and infrastructure that is unable to properly support them or allow them to seek legal remedy, and further faced with things like arbitrary detentions and the disappearance of male family members, women in Yemen are stepping up and suffering as a result.
In 2000, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, known as the Women, Peace and Security resolution. The resolution was enacted in an effort to address the fact that women and girls suffer disproportionately from negative effects during and after times of war. This unfair burden is due to the proliferation of social networks and the magnification of inequality, both of which expose women and girls to things like sexual violence and exploitation in greater capacities than in peacetime. In the nearly two decades since its adoption, the resolution has aimed to help affected women by making them participants in peacemaking efforts and politics.
The resolution has been somewhat successful in some regions, playing a large part in helping women participate in peace processes in their countries. This has meant enabling women to act as signatories on peace agreements, participate in peace talks and negotiation, assist with humanitarian responses and post-conflict reconstruction, or partake in other peace-driven actions.
Nonetheless, women in Yemen are consistently underrepresented in peace talks, even in the face of concerted effort from the UN and other humanitarian organizations to address this gap. So, despite women taking on the roles vacated by their loved ones who may have been lost in the crisis or forcibly taken and held, they are not able to advocate for their own safety.
This, however, is not the full extent of challenges that Yemeni women face. According to the World Food Program (WFP), in times of crisis, women and girls are put at greater risk for humanitarian issues, on top of the gender-based issues they already experience. One of the most common problems is that girls are often pulled out of school or forced to marry early in order for families to survive, as many are unable to afford food alongside paying for school or an additional child. The WFP also reports that, for women, one of the main dangers is malnutrition. This can be caused by the burden of pregnancy — more than one million pregnant and lactating Yemeni women required malnutrition treatment or prevention intervention in 2019 — or the burden of childcare. These women have to become self-sacrificing to a dangerous extent, often giving up their own food to feed their children.
Right now in Yemen, around 50,000 people are facing famine-like conditions, and 11 million more are experiencing food insecurity. Young children are particularly vulnerable to hunger, with around half of Yemeni children under five expected to experience acute malnutrition, according to the WFP.
As the Yemen crisis fades from news headlines, due to the nature of it being such an extended conflict, it’s important to stay up-to-date on the current situation. This is particularly true when considering how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the war-torn country and its most vulnerable populations.
COVID-19 is not the first public health crisis to affect Yemen, as cholera, diphtheria, measles, and dengue fever were all reported in the country prior, with cholera affecting a suspected two million Yemenis since 2016. However, Yemen was, and is not, prepared to handle the pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, medical facilities and personnel have not been left alone during the conflict. More than half of the 5,000 or so health centers have closed and many health professionals have been forced to flee. On top of this, health aid has been obstructed by the Houthi and other authorities.
Considering the heavy use of starvation as a weapon of war in Yemen, primarily by the Houthis, the impact of hunger and starvation on an individual’s health and the disproportionate way women experience hunger has escalated the pandemic. In April 2020, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen warned that, based on epidemiological projections, nearly 16 million people in Yemen could be infected by COVID-19 under the current conditions.
The actual number of cases in Yemen is difficult to know as data on COVID-19 in the country is difficult to collect. The government has only reported deaths in the hundreds, but considering the disastrous nature of the healthcare system and the fact that war makes health crises worse, the number is likely much higher. Still, There is evidence that the country is currently experiencing a second wave of the disease. On top of the expected rise in cholera cases with the rainy season in May, this could be devastating for the population, and it will further complicate and inflame the suffering and discrimination that women in Yemen already face.
There is hope, however, as at the end of March 2021, Yemen received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines, which included 360,000 doses, 13,000 safety boxes and 1.3 million syringes, through COVAX. This was the first step in the plan to vaccinate the country, with an estimated 1.9 million doses expected to be delivered to the country throughout the rest of the year. Those leading the vaccine effort will be forced to navigate the crumbling healthcare system and figure out how to equitably distribute vaccinations.
Women are suffering in Yemen as a result of the humanitarian crisis, and the COVID-19 health crisis has only made things worse. It is important to understand and acknowledge the nuanced convergence of humanitarian, security and public health crises in Yemen. Otherwise, it is easy to get lost in the severity and horror often broadcasted and covered through global media.