By Jane Marriott
Today is International Women’s Day- an annual celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women around the world. Since arriving in Yemen last year, I’ve been fortunate to meet a huge number of women from all walks of life. One of the reasons I feel optimistic about Yemen’s future is because of the amazing women I’ve met and their commitment to improving not only their lives and their families’, but also the communities around them.
However there is no denying that life can be incredibly tough for women in Yemen. The statistics speak for themselves:
- Around eight women die every day in childbirth in Yemen;
- Half a million pregnant or breastfeeding women are at risk from acute malnutrition;
● Yemen ranked last of 146 countries on the Gender Inequality Index Human Development Report (HDR) in 2011 and also ranked last of the 135 countries in the 2012 Global Gender Gap report;
● Secondary school enrolment rates are at around 30% for girls;
● Almost a quarter of Yemeni women have been subject to female genital cutting with rates over 90% in parts of the country.
Yemeni women have also been hugely under-represented in Yemen’s political life and in the making of decisions that affect their future. I have therefore been pleased to see the extensive and impressive participation of women activists in the National Dialogue Conference. Women held 126 out of the 565 seats at the NDC and chaired two of the nine working groups. This obviously builds on the participation and influential role of Yemeni women in the protests in 2011 which were groundbreaking in the extent to which women were visible and active.
Two of the most important commitments coming out of this National Dialogue process are: the commitment to new legislation guaranteeing a minimum of 30% of seats for women in elected bodies; and, article 167 calling for a minimum age of marriage for girls at 18. Currently 14% of Yemeni girls are married before 15 and over 50% are married by the age of 18. This places limitations not only their access to education- about one third of married women aged between 15 and 24 in Yemen are literate- but has significant implications for their healthcare and the exercise of their basic human rights.
I therefore strongly welcome both key commitments. Yemeni women, as half of the population, have a democratic right to participate in the political processes which affect their daily lives. Increased participation will also be critical to securing the reforms and delivery of public services that will significantly improve the lives of millions of Yemeni women and girls. Instituting a legal age of marriage and ending the practice of child marriage is a reform that is long overdue. And independent women activists need to be supported to continue the fight for women’s rights, to ensure their voices are not suppressed or sidelined in favour of narrow party political interests.
The British Government has placed girls and women at the heart of its commitment to tackling global poverty. Investments in girls and women can transform their lives and those of their families and wider society. Between 2008 and 2012 we supported nearly 15,000 women in opening bank accounts, provided 23,000 women with access to microloans and 4,600 women entrepreneurs received businesses training through the UK’s development agency (DFID) supported projects to encourage the growth of small business in Yemen.
We are also funding the Social Fund for Development (SFD), which has to date helped 16,000 girls to attend school. Through a nutrition program with UNICEF, we aim to treat and prevent under nutrition amongst 1.65 million women and children in Yemen from 2012 to 2015. We are also developing a new program of support to civil society, which will help women and other vulnerable groups to get their voices heard, access their rights and participate in political processes.
In addition, only three days ago the UK’s development Minister, Justine Greening, gave a speech on the importance of ending early and forced marriage, and the British Foreign Secretary has shown the UK’s commitment addressing sexual violence in conflict through the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. UK funding tries to take account of the specific needs of women, girls and young boys at risk of exploitation both indirectly and directly- we are currently contributing to the provision of two safe shelters in Aden and Sana’a for women, boys and girls, who have experienced sexual and physical violence.
It is also therefore reassuring that there are also important recommendations in the final outcomes document to ensuring equality before the law for all Yemeni citizens including equal rights for women, and for the criminalisation of violence against women and children.
Legislation on its own, however, will not be sufficient. And changing social norms that enable denial of basic human rights, will take years. While there is hope and reason for optimism in Yemen, there is much worked needed – by men and women – to see legislation delivered, then translated into action and genuine improvements in the lives of the inspiring women of Yemen. We will do everything we can to support this change.