As the world celebrates International Women’s Day where women around the world continue to fight for equality, Yemen sits at the bottom of both the Gender Inequality and the World Economic Forum Gender Gap indices. In 2017 Yemen was listed as the world’s worst place to be a woman.
Inequalities have long been recognized as barriers for Yemeni women and girls, but for nearly half a decade, Yemen has been in violent conflict that has exacerbated their situation. They are now forced to shoulder the burden of displacement, starvation, broken education systems, job scarcity, economic insecurity and little or no water, electricity and sanitation. And they are often excluded from any decision-making processes within their communities and left without a voice or representation.
More vulnerable to violence and deprivation
Massive internal displacement has left them more vulnerable to violence and deprivation. They make up more than half the 3.5 million who are now constantly on the move in search of safety and shelter. More than a quarter of them are under 18.
A single mother of two, Samiah was forced to flee her home when conflict broke out in the western port city of Hodeidah. For the first time, and against her will, her small family was on their own, without a support system. “I want the war to be over. I want to be able to live safely with my children,” she says tearfully.
Most Yemenis want the same things as Samiah — a different future for themselves and their families, one that is safe, secure and just.
“We went to bed hungry many nights; there wasn’t enough food to eat. There were times I told my children I wasn’t hungry so that whatever food I put on the table would be enough for them,” Samiah says.
Before the conflict Samiah’s family had for generations fished the sea, enabling them to feed themselves, as well as run a small market stall. But “Everything changed after the war broke out. Conflict was everywhere — there was no place that was safe, including the sea. My family was unable to fish, we had no other way to make money.”
Putting women at the centre
Because Samiah’s situation was not unique UNDP’s partnership with the World Bank and its national partners — the Social Fund for Development and the Public Works Project — has made women’s empowerment and protection central to its projects.
The USD$400 million Yemen Emergency Crisis Response Project (YECRP) works to reduce some of the socio-economic barriers facing women. It has helped nearly 40,000 women become equal partners in addressing the urgent needs of their local communities. They have been involved in nearly 3,700 projects — building water cisterns, paving roads, repairing schools and protecting agricultural lands that will assist Yemen in building back stronger than it was before the conflict.
Nearly 800 of these projects generated work and much-needed cash for over 63,000 women. These opportunities enabled them to not only contribute to their communities, they also provided much needed disposable income for water, food, shelter, health and education.
YECRP has also trained and employed more than 3,600 young women to help hundreds of thousands of mothers and children in need by providing much-needed educational services to those affected by malnutrition.
The war has taken a severe toll on an already fragile economy, leading to one third of businesses closing and an additional eight million losing their incomes. Now, with 60 per cent of Yemenis without jobs, the conflict has largely reduced employment and income opportunities traditionally dominated by men. Because of financial necessity women have moved into the labour force.
Although female participation in Yemen’s labour market is one of the world’s lowest, the conflict has changed some socio-economic perceptions and barriers that have traditionally held women back. They have taken on additional roles and responsibilities to support their families by doing work, even physical labour, that was previously thought inconceivable.
Samiah has become a manual labourer. “Thanks to the project, I’ve worked for four months now in the community and many things have improved in our lives. The work makes me happy and hopeful for a brighter future. I can pay the rent and provide my children with food; everyone is happy and healthy.”
YECRP is supporting around 3,200 women-owned and operated businesses. Many were on the verge of collapse, having weathered economic shocks since 2015. And with the constantly fluctuating national currency — and no capital — these women were struggling to make ends meet, and many were unable to escape significant amounts of debt.
The women and their businesses are a major force for job creation and are supplying goods that local markets desperately need. They’ve received financial grants and technical support to manage their businesses during the crisis while supporting their communities and their families.
Many are now key enterprises within their community, helping to provide continuity, sustain peace and a sense of pride during a very difficult time in Yemeni history.
“I keep working as hard as I can.”
There is still significant progress to be made in Yemen for gender equality, however, through UNDP and our partners, we are striving to make a difference one woman, one family, and one community at a time.
“When I hear about other people’s suffering, I keep working as hard as I can so I’m never in that situation again. I don’t want to beg for help from anyone ever again. I’ve learned a great deal from the cash-for-work project. I depend on only myself and work hard to earn money to provide for my children,” Samiah says with a smile.
Story and photos by UNDP Yemen