Everyday Heroes: Amidst conflict, Yemeni women find ways to lead
Through two and a half years of conflict and worsening food shortages, Yemeni women are pushing back against conservative social norms to keep families alive and communities functioning.
As we commemorate 16 Days of Action to eliminate violence against women, we interviewed women taking part in programs supported by donor governments, UN agencies, and other international organizations — and making a difference against all odds in their communities.
The midwife-turned-health advocate
Zakia Ayed Hussein Feal, a midwife in Al-Shurookh Village — Hodeidah governorate, knew her community needed a health center. Without one, residents were forced to travel long distances for basic services — but even those became inaccessible during heavy rains.
“This problem had a drastically negative impact, particularly on children, pregnant women, and the elderly,” she said. “I am the mother of five daughters and I have suffered a great deal myself because of the long distance and rugged roads to the nearest health center…many pregnant women have miscarried because of the rugged roads. Many children and elderly people have died before they could reach help.”
She and other villagers urged officials to build even a small room that could serve as a health unit, but her requests were rejected.
Lengthy negotiations with the Ministry of Health District Office and District Council got nowhere, she said, until Insider Mediators trained under the Enhanced Rural Resilience in Yemen program helped the dialogue move forward.
The result? A health care center to serve 1,215 people— of which more than 50 per cent are women — is currently being built.
In Al-Madan village, in the western coastal area of Zabid, community mediator Mona Abkar felt compelled to step in when a dispute between parents and unpaid teachers threatened to keep 730 female students out of school. “I couldn’t just sit and watch this happen, with my hands folded,” she said.
So she enlisted support from local businessmen, the principal of a local boys’ school, and teachers who were parents themselves. They formed a committee that now collects monthly fees from parents and others, gives the money to the girls’ school, and monitors where it goes — mainly to pay the transportation costs for volunteer teachers in Zabid. Since August 2016, the salaries of most Yemeni teachers — like other civil servants — have simply stopped.
Mona credits her success to training she received under the Enhanced Rural Resilience in Yemen program, funded by the European Union and supported by UNDP. A total of 56 mediators have now gone through the program.
The health educators
After years of fighting, Yemen — already the poorest country in the Arab region — has seen many basic services such as health and education collapse. Female health educators, trained in first aid and nutrition have in many instances stepped in to fill critical gaps. In the Hodeidah governorate 221 health educators, all women, have identified and referred more than 13,000 cases of malnutrition among children and pregnant and lactating women for treatment in three districts.
“As a health educator, I identified 82 women suffering from malnutrition and 63 children suffering from moderate to acute malnutrition — and 39 children suffering from severe malnutrition,” said one. “I am more educated now, and I have an important role to play that people respect and appreciate.”
In Tuban District, Lahj governorate, Nusiabah Assaqqaf vividly recalls the day she persuaded a group of armed men to leave her community in April 2015 — neutralizing a situation that could have escalated quickly from tension to outright violence. “On that day, an armed group tried to enter my area, which was hosting a large number of internally displaced people, mostly women and children,” she said. “We feared our home would be turned into a battlefield. I knew I had to do something.”
So she rallied other war-weary female elders in the community, to march on the men — over the objections of conservative local men, who viewed the intervention of women as humiliating. Fifty of the women waited for hours, she said, until one man emerged from the group to speak with them.
“We told him that the area was populated with only civilians and displaced people and asked them to leave. We told them clearly that all we wanted was a safe environment for our families and others. They listened, and they agreed.”
“This experience gave me confidence, and I knew I needed to polish my negotiation skills,” Nusiabah said. And through Advanced Training of Trainers on conflict resolution and mediation, a program conducted jointly by UNDP Yemen and local partners, she has.
The water providers
Gelagel village, in southwestern Yemen, comprises 150 households — all of which were suffering daily from poor infrastructure and lack of clean water and sanitation. Bypassing rusted-out pipes, villagers — mainly women — would walk to a collection point nearly a half-kilometer from their homes, crossing a dangerously busy highway to collect clean water and back again to bring it home on their heads or in carts.
Residents came together in August 2016 under the Enhanced Rural Resilience in Yemen program, funded by the European Union and supported by UNDP — and revived their Village Cooperative Council, launching a Community Resilience Plan and self-help initiative. The Gelagel Cooperative Council, made up of three men and three women, worked to bring safe water to every home. The result: All 150 households across four neighborhoods now have four water pipes bringing clean water to every home in Gelagel.
The peacekeeper, honored
Community leader Fatima AlKur didn’t expect honors for heading up the Women’s Development Association in southwestern Yemen’s Abiyan governorate.
The Association comprises 150 women who work together to improve the grim quality of life and keep communities functioning where they live. As conflict has continued and government functions in Yemen have collapsed, however, conflict resolution has become an increasingly important function of such civil society organizations.
In March 2017, Fatima AlKur — trained as a mediator under the Enhanced Rural Resilience in Yemen program — received the International Women’s Day Prize from Yemen’s Youth Leadership Development Foundation and UN Women in recognition of her work to resolve a particularly bitter dispute among factions of an NGO in Lawdar District.
In resolving this and other disputes, she said, “I built on what I learned from my Insider Mediators training in May 2016. I converted those techniques and skills to practice to solve problems…. Within my association we address and facilitate solving of social issues, like education and health.” Insider Mediators is supported by the Enhanced Rural Resilience in Yemen program.
The coffee farmers
Amat Allah Sulaiman, from Obash Village in the traditional Burra Mountains region — Hodeidah governorate, signed up for agricultural training but refused a daily stipend.
“The skills and knowledge I have received are so important that I cannot put a value on them,” she said. “I prefer that my stipend is allocated to another woman because the training I have received is more than enough and I am so grateful” for the USAID-funded support.
Women are the driving force behind coffee production in the Burra Mountains. They prune the trees and till the soil, raise seedlings to become saplings and then plant them. Through Small and Micro Enterprise Promotion Service (SMEPS), funded by USAID and UNDP implementation, women receive training in agricultural best practices such as how to prune most effectively and use natural fertilizer to produce high-quality coffee.