Yemen is a nation in crisis.
Since 2014, the country has been in the grips of a devastating civil war that has left nearly a quarter of a million people dead. In 2020, under the added strains of the COVID-19 pandemic, Yemen’s healthcare system collapsed along with its resource supply chains.
The situation is so dire that the United Nations has recently warned an entire generation of children may be lost to hunger. Countless more will continue to suffer the vast consequences of war.
Among them are women, who – like women in all conflict-affected countries around the world – are disproportionately impacted by Yemen’s intersecting crises.
Faced with the intense pressures of protecting, feeding, and caring for children, family members, and communities under profoundly challenging circumstances, ever-growing rates of gender-based violence, and exclusion from meaningful economic and political participation, women in Yemen are navigating some of the most complex and life-threatening circumstances in the world.
But they are also taking a stand – for their rights, and for a future of peace. And they are doing so with courage, conviction, and relentless action at all levels, from grassroots efforts in remote communities to advocacy targeting the United Nations Security Council.
In 2015, when scholar and activist Rasha Jarhum first started campaigning for peace in Yemen, she was immediately disappointed by the clear exclusion of women from peace negotiations organised by the United Nations.
“We tried to engage within UN systems, but I didn’t feel there was a genuine interest in women’s participation,” she says. “There was too much questioning about our role, too much pressure to adhere to the neutrality principles of the UN, too much enforcing of consensus principles.”
So she took matters into her own hands.
In 2016, Jarhum withdrew from her engagement within the UN peace initiative and revived the Women’s Solidarity Network (WSN), a grassroots network of more than 70 Yemeni women leaders calling for a recognition of women’s rights, needs, and interests in the country’s peace talks and political processes. First launched in 2013 to advocate for the integration of women’s rights into the new draft constitution, the group’s work had been put on hold due to the war.
In reviving WSN, Jarhum committed to creating a space in which participation and action, not consensus, were the goal.
“The idea was to bring women leaders together from all different backgrounds and not enforce neutrality or consensus,” she says. “We have common ground, but we recognise our political differences. That’s what makes us strong.”
WSN now has over 300 members who reside both in Yemen and around the world. With a mission to promote women’s rights and contribute to peacebuilding, WSN is working on the ground to protect and improve the lives of women, children, and other marginalised populations in Yemen.
“Members of the network have been involved in the evacuation of armed groups from schools and humanitarian negotiations to grant safe passage to families stuck on the frontlines of conflict or to allow humanitarian aid to pass through,” says Jarhum. “The members are also working on ending armed conflicts in areas over water and land, and on the release of arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared persons.”
Other initiatives include work to de-radicalise children and youth combatants, provide support for internally displaced persons, and provide legal aid for women and girls who have experienced gender-based violence.
From WSN’s earliest days, WILPF has been providing Jarhum with support, guidance, tools, and resources as she worked to build Yemen’s feminist peace movement from the ground up.
And we were by her side when she doubled down on her commitment to the future of Yemen with the launch of the Peace Track Initiative (PTI) – a powerful force for the inclusion of women and other underrepresented groups in Yemen’s peace processes.
Incubated by Jarhum and a group of Yemeni women activists at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in 2017, PTI was also officially registered in Canada and is now hosted in the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa. It’s among the leading organisations working to directly embed women in peace talks in Yemen.
PTI focuses on ensuring women are represented and empowered within each of the three “tracks” of diplomatic peace processes: official discussions (Track I), unofficial dialogue and problem-solving activities (Track II), and grassroots action through community organising (Track III).
As a Track II feminist partner, the organisation is actively involved in hosting consultations with women activists and women’s groups in Yemen. Jarhum says that compared to many Track II partners, PTI members have no interest in staying silent when they hear about or observe human rights abuses and violations – a reality she says is all too common for groups concerned about maintaining a neutral stance in the name of diplomacy.
In 2019, the group’s relentless efforts led to recognition of their work by the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, in a briefing to the United Nations.
“We have claimed our space in the peace process,” says Jarhum. “It’s not that someone invited us or gave it to us; we just kind of forced ourselves in and everyone had to recognise us – and no longer ignore us.”
As Jarhum and her network of women peace activists continue to pursue their vision of a future of justice, equality, and security in Yemen, they are motivated by the momentum of their movement and the change they’re already creating.
“One of PTI’s biggest achievements was our successful efforts to advocate for the adoption of a United Nations Security Council resolution that called for women’s inclusion in the peace process in 2018 and another that listed sexual- and gender-based violence and child recruitment as sanctionable crimes in 2020,” says Jarhum. “So now, individuals involved in these crimes will be sanctioned.”
And while the feminist movement in Yemen is being imagined, built, and driven by Yemeni women, Jarhum says that support from WILPF helped bring their plans to life.
“It’s cheesy to say, but WILPF is the wind behind our wings,” she says. “They helped us take off in many ways – not only financially, but technically, morally, and through all forms of support that we never could have imagined.”
Creative Director – Nina Maria Mørk Hansen
Authors – Adalmiina Erkkola (stories), Emily Dontsos (stories), Molly Jerlström (Section snippets), Elena Cason (Section snippets), Tove Ivergård (Section snippets)
Copyeditor – Emily Dontsos
Video transcripts – Adélaïde Barat-Magan
Design – Nadia Joubert
Development – Pierre Joubert
Thank you to Laila Alodaat & Rasha Jarhum (The Women Leading Yemen’s Peace Movement), Elena Cason, Madeleine Rees, Ray Acheson & Nela (WILPF’s COVID-19 Response: Action for Change), Zarin Hamid & Genevieve Riccoboni (Over Two Decades Later, What Have These Women’s Rights Milestones Really Achieved?), Katrin Geyer and Ray Acheson (Feminists for Nuclear Disarmament) and Maria Butler, Jenny Aulin & Elena Cason (Walking the Green Feminist Road) for their help in writing the stories of change and giving feedback on them.
Photo contributions by: Irina Popa, Nela Porobić Isaković, Ari Beser, Korea Peace Now, Charlotte Hooij, dinosmichail, Unsplash, Adobe Stock, WILPF Sections and Groups in Aotearoa, Australia, Argentina, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and Togo. Photos from WILPF Archives, WILPF International Secretariat
Videos contributions by: The Story, Tay Blyth-Kubota, Joanna Maxwell-Scott, Antoine Guide,