How Yemen’s war ‘casts a shadow’ over women and girls

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Aden (AFP) – Women and girls in Yemen bear the brunt of a seven-year civil war that has stripped many of their freedoms and crippled state institutions, preventing them from seeking help.

A strict interpretation of Islam is enforced in areas controlled by Houthi rebels and mass displacement, with millions driven from their homes, often makes education and employment impossible.

AFP discussed their plight with Huda Ali Alawi, director of the Women’s Research and Training Center at Aden University, who has conducted several studies on gender-based violence:

How does war affect women?

Alawi said the war had “cast a shadow” over women in terms of quality of life and education, with a massive increase in child marriage.

“There are many cases of girls dropping out of school because of life difficulties and displacement,” she said.

“Many families lost their sources of income and girls’ education was no longer a priority.

Studies have shown an increase in gender-based violence since the war broke out, she said.

“But because society is conservative…survivors of violence are led to believe that it is for the best and in their best interests to remain silent.”

Stigma was often cited as a barrier to help-seeking for girls and women.

“The reality we live in today is not what (achieves) the aspirations of the feminist movement, and Yemen has regressed in all aspects, and even more so in terms of women’s empowerment.”

Why is there so little support?

The problem, Alawi said, centers on the country’s political, social and religious institutions, where rebels have taken over much of the north, with government forces controlling the rest.

There is “no support or encouragement” from political and academic leaders or institutions to help with women’s empowerment programs, she said.

Even foreign programs are frowned upon in Yemen.

“Many believe that these programs come to transform the conservative society into a pornographic society,” Alawi said.

Religious figures “keep criticizing” women’s rights activists, she added.

Yemen’s devastating seven-year civil war has crippled state institutions, preventing women from seeking help and driving millions from their homes, often making education and employment impossible Saleh Al-OBEIDIAFP

According to Alawi, there have been many “overt and indirect threats” against those trying to lead movements to improve conditions for women.

Women activists often practice a “form of self-censorship” when trying to reduce the gender gap in society, she said.

What does the future hold?

Alawi, 51, grew up in southern Yemen, which was an independent state under a Marxist system until its unification with the north in 1990.

“Empowering and educating women was a priority. Women were in the political arena and much more active,” she said.

But after unification, women’s participation in public life became merely “symbolic”, Alawi said.

“Authorities intentionally tried to convince people at home and abroad that they supported women’s issues.”

As the civil war escalated after 2015, there was a “genuine absence of women”, she said, calling it a “deliberate” decision by the ruling class.

“The future of Yemeni women depends on the authorities in power,” Alawi said.

“These outdated political systems cannot keep up with the changing times.”

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