What Does It Mean To Be a Yemeni Woman?

What does it mean to be a Yemeni woman? How does it feel to be raised in the worst country in the world on gender equality? Glad you asked, but I must warn you. It’s not going to be an easy answer. 

To be a Yemeni woman, means that you must carry a huge burden on your shoulders for as long as you live.

It means being constantly reminded that for some reason you are carrying the honor of the whole village. The honor can definitely expand and shrink based on the situation.

As a Yemeni woman, if you’re with someone who happens to be from the same country or a neighboring one you can surely expect them to feel responsible to (or rather have the right to) tell you what to do. This is because your actions for some reason affect them.

So, you have to be careful, to save your tribe’s face! But careful of what exactly? Well, the list is endless. To be on the safe side, all you must do is have a man’s permission. The permission needs to be received before doing anything major in your life or considered unusual in society. Which man are you talking about though? Again, the list is long. If you’re married, you’d need your husband’s permission, if not, it’s your father’s and brothers’ permission you need. If they aren’t available, you need a family member, or any man from your tribe.

I’ve seen this with women from different Arab countries, not just in Yemen, but I can mostly talk about Yemen. I lived there for two decades of my life so I know what I’m talking about. So let’s dive into women’s role in Yemen and how its political instability is affecting women.

There’s a gender role shift in Yemen.

Yemeni women had their fingerprints in 2011 revolution. In fact, Nobel committee recognized it when they awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman. She was one of three women who jointly received the award that year.

Now, Yemen is entering its 5th year of war. The economy has collapsed. There’s a shift in gender roles, as women are seeking work to help support their families. One could ask if women’s empowerment is on the rise in Yemen.

The situation for women and girls is far from perfect.

On paper, this all sounds promising. The revolution and the war seem to empower women in a way.

Given that Yemen is a highly patriarchal society, most women in Yemen are raised convinced that men are their guardians. It’s not easy to shift this mentality.

All these changes in roles has led to a sharp increase in domestic violence.

According to the United Nations, around three million women and girls in Yemen are at risk of gender-based violence. Assaults and abuse targeting women increased 63 percent. Child marriage rates have escalated to 66 per cent, as of 2017. According to Yemeni Women Union (YWU) violence against women has further increased because of Covid-19. 

What about the law? 

Gender discrimination is common in Yemen. There aren’t any women in parliament, although women are supposed to get 30% of the seats under the law. Women hold fewer than 20 percent of executive positions in the country.

Article 40 and 41 unification constitution of Yemen stipulates that all citizens are considered equal before the law. It states “Every citizen has the right to participate in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the country”.

However, there are many laws that discriminate against women. Women cannot marry without the approval of their male guardians. They don’t have equal rights to divorce, inheritance or child custody. 

What’s next for women in Yemen? 

Clearly, Yemen has a long way to go to achieve gender equality and there’s so much that needs to be done. Because of the devastating situation the country is in, the focus has shifted away from discrimination of women.

Famine, the death toll, COVID -19, and other issues are taking the light away from the severe gender inequality in the country.

Let’s not forget that women represent around 50% of the society. If half of society is silenced and disregarded the country will never thrive. Gender inequality is the root of the problem. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed!

Feminism in Yemen: “Now is not the time for women.”

To understand a bit about feminism in a country like Yemen, you must first understand what the situation is like for women there. It is a country that has consistently ranked the lowest on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index since 2002 (yes, that is 17 years in a row). Women’s rights and empowerment have never been a priority.

The discrimination against women in Yemen is very complex. 

Women in Yemen are often discriminated against and looked at as inferior to men. It is a conservative and deeply patriarchal society. Inequality doesn’t only come from the culture, but also from the government. With laws that allow women to be married against their will and under the age of 18, laws that allow “honor killings”, and even laws that obligate women to ask for permission from their husbands to go out, violence and discrimination are inevitable. 

Signs of hope are destroyed too soon.

It wasn’t until the Arab spring of 2011, when thousands took to the streets in peaceful protest, that we had a sign of hope for Yemen. Women participated in the protests and demanded equal opportunities and representation. Finally, Yemeni women were shining and breaking stereotypes. The protests resulted in the National Dialogue Conference in 2013, and 30% of its members were women. The conference proposed a new constitution that recognized women as equal citizens, set a 30% quota for them in decision making positions, and tackled some of the most discriminatory laws. This victory, however, was too good to be true.

Everything went downhill when the Houthi Rebels took power in late 2014. Hope was destroyed and there has been ongoing conflict ever since. The intervention of a western-backed military coalition led by Saudi Arabia turned this conflict into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And so, women had to survive not only the struggles of being female in Yemen, but also a deadly war that caused thousands of deaths, forced many to flee their homes, and deprived many others of basic needs, healthcare, and access to safe water.

Women’s representation and rights are considered luxuries.

5 years later, and after a number of attempted peace negotiations, there is always one answer whenever the representation and rights of women are brought up: “Now is not the time for women.” As if women’s participation in these negotiations is a luxury and not a necessity. It is the same comment I get on the feminist online platform I founded, The Yemeni Feminist Movement.

The Yemeni Feminist Movement is the first Yemeni feminist online platform. It raises awareness on feminism and discriminatory laws and practices against women in Yemen. When we post about gender equality and the discrimination against women in the Yemeni legistlation, people will often say, “Now is not the time for women’s rights.” They say to me, “We are at war and all you care about is women’s rights?” or “We don’t even have human rights, so now is not the time for women’s rights.”

It is astonishing to me that a lot of people think of human rights as different from women’s rights. As if women aren’t humans! “Let’s focus on human (men’s) rights first and then we will focus on women’s rights later!” It is even more bewildering when people don’t understand the correlation between conflict resolution and equality for women. How can we achieve peace if women aren’t part of peace negotiations? If there is no justice and equality for women? How can we ever be a peaceful country when women aren’t given the same freedom and opportunities as men?

We almost had victory in 2013 because of strong Yemeni women who vocalized their demands and did not take no for an answer. If now is not the time for us Yemeni women to do the same again, when will be?

Yemen, Feminism & Power with Lina Abirafeh

“The challenge with Yemen is this: it is a forgotten emergency.”

Lina Abirafeh is the Executive Director of the Arab Institute for Women. She is an expert in gender issues in emergencies, with 20 years experience working in conflict, post-conflict and natural disaster settings around the world. She’s also an author, researcher, and influential voice in the global gender policy sphere. You can hear more about Lina’s work in her Ted Talk.

At the Women Deliver 2019 Conference, Girls’ Globe’s Ashley Lackovich-Van Gorp had the opportunity to sit down with Lina. She shares her expertise on the situation facing women and girls in Yemen today, explaining that they remain disproportionately vulnerable, despite all of the rhetoric around preventing violence and protecting women.

“We literally don’t put our money where our mouth is, and I think Yemen has been the most stark example of that.”


Ashley asks Lina to explain how senior leaders like herself can ‘pass the power’ to the next generation of activists. Her answer? They already have it.

“I see that power already, what I do is hold up the mirror and show them the power they have. I think they don’t know what they’re capable of, they don’t see it.”

Lina’s voice is strong, clear and inspirational. Her final words are an important reminder to all those who feel passionately human rights and gender equality:

“Everyone has a voice, but not everyone has that microphone.”

Child Marriage: Enough is Enough

Child marriage remains one of the most horrific human rights violations that exists today. It is estimated that globally 14 million girls are married off before the age of 18, robbing them of their childhood and leaving them vulnerable to violence, poverty, domestic slavery, sexual assault and HIV/AIDS. Child marriage is a human rights violation that cuts across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities.

The recent news coverage of the 8-year-old girl who was married off to a 40-year-old man in Yemen, poignantly highlights the desperate need to outlaw child marriage. After their wedding night, the 8-year-old girl – identified as “Rawan” – died from torn genitals and severe bleeding in the northwest city of Hardh. According to media accounts, the fatal injuries were incurred through sexual intercourse. Let me emphasize that it was NOT sexual intercourse. It was rape and it should be clearly understood as so.  Rawan’s tragic story is sadly not unique and millions of girls die every year from injuries incurred from sexual violence.

Image Courtesy of Gerry & Bonni on Flickr (Creative Commons)
Image Courtesy of Gerry & Bonni on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Furthermore, as a result of child marriage, these girls are at far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Yemen has a high maternal mortality rate of 370 deaths per 100,000 live births. Reproductive health studies show that young women face greater risks in pregnancy than older women, including life-threatening obstructed labour due to adolescents’ smaller pelvises. The shortage of prenatal and postnatal healthcare services, especially in Yemen’s rural areas, place girls’ and women’s lives at risk. An overwhelming majority of Yemeni women still deliver at home, often without the assistance of a skilled birth attendant capable of handling childbirth emergencies. Girls who marry young often have insufficient information on family planning or worse, none at all. As young wives they find it difficult to assert themselves against older husbands to negotiate family planning methods.

Human Rights Watch reports that 14% of girls in Yemen are married before age 15, with 82% married before age 18. Child marriage is in fact legal in Yemen; however, in light of the recent cases and international media attention, Yemen Parliamentarians are calling for new laws which ban child marriage, set the minimum age for marriage at 18 ,and implement strategic measures to effectively enact the law. Speaking in an interview with CNN, Hooria Mashhour, Yemen’s human rights minister stated,

Many child marriages take place every year in Yemen. It’s time to end this practice.”

In order to fully eliminate child marriage, awareness raising of the negative impacts of this human rights violation must be conducted. There are a magnitude of elements that contribute to child marriage including lack of awareness and understanding. One father who married off his young daughter spoke to Human Rights Watch and declared that if he knew then what he knows now he would never have married off his daughter.

In many cases, the reality of poverty plays a big role in the decision to marry off a daughter. Here are a few examples of how poverty impacts child marriage:

  • Marrying a girl child means one less family member to feed, clothe and educate.
  • The bride’s family receives a hefty dowdy/bride price for a young girl, or in those instances where the bride’s family pays the groom a dowry, they often have to pay less money if the bride is young and uneducated. Sometimes the daughters are actually sold to pay off debts.

Another huge determinant of child marriage is tradition. Child marriage is a traditional practice in many countries and cultures around the world, and breaking tradition can alienate families from the rest of the community. However in the words of Graca Machel, member of The Elders and a major contributor to the founding of Girls Not Brides,

Traditions are made by us – and we can decide to change them. We should be respectful but we must also have the courage to stop harmful practices that impoverish girls, women and their communities.”

One 11 year old Yemeni girl decided to break away from tradition and challenged her own parents when they arranged for her to be married to an older man. Nada al-Ahdal caught the attention of the world when she uploaded a three minute video on YouTube after she escaped from your family and took refuge at her uncle’s house.

The world needs more Nada al-Ahdal’s but can we really leave eight, nine, ten, and eleven-year-olds to defend themselves? Nada is one of the rare and lucky girls’ who successfully avoided child marriage but there are millions who are not so lucky. Hence, we need to make a change and advocate for child marriage to be fully outlawed and recognised as a human rights violation. Thousands of NGOs, human rights defenders, women and girls have been advocating to end child marriage for years and, although change will not come over night, we must keep on and remember the Rawan’s of the world.

Take Action:

Girls Not Brides

Every Woman Every Child

Other Useful Websites:

Human Rights Watch


Child Marriage: The World is Waking Up

Approximately 14 million girls under the age of 18 are married each year. According to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), if present trends continue, 142 million girls will be married over the next decade. These facts and statistics are staggering. In a recent post, I highlighted the gross injustice and harmful effects that girls suffer as a result of this traditional practice.

Comprehending the issue of child marriage is overwhelming. The good news is:

The world is waking up to this injustice.

News stories, articles, television interviews and social media feeds have been flooded with one outcry:

Stop Child Marriage.

Image Courtesy of BudgIT
Image Courtesy of BudgIT

A recent change in Nigeria’s constitution, concerning the minimum age of marriage, has spurred on weeks of protests and controversy across the country. The Nigerian Feminist Forum responded immediately with a press release to explain the situation. On July 16, Nigerian Senators met to review a portion of the Constitution. An initial vote was cast to delete a portion of the Constitution which stated  “any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.” Senator Ahmed Yerima challenged the deletion and voted to keep the controversial clause.

Image Courtesy of Aljazeera
Image Courtesy of Aljazeera

It is important to note that the clause in the Constitution does not legalize child marriage. However, many activists are concerned that the clause legitimizes the traditional practice. According to the Population Council, 73% of girls in Nigeria are married before the age of 18.

In response to the Nigerian Senate’s decision, social media activists have launched the #ChildNotBride campaign and have captured the attention of millions. Activists, women and children are making a declaration, protesting online through social media as well as in the streets of Nigeria. Since the change in Nigeria’s Constitution, a petition to the United Nations in opposition of child marriage in Nigeria has spread rapidly.

In the United States, advocacy groups are calling for stronger relationships with governments and the private sector to better prevent child marriage and its consequences.

Nada al-Ahdal, an 11 year old Yemeni girl, has brought the issue of child marriage to the media forefront. In Yemen, 47% of girls are married before the age of 18. Nada’s recent Youtube video went viral, receiving 7 million views on Youtube over three days.

Nada argues against child marriage, insisting that she would rather die than be a child bride. The video is a public declaration in which Nada directly opposes her family’s wishes to marry her to an older man.

Fox News recently interviewed Ann Warner, Senior Gender Advisor for the ICRW. The world must overcome several challenges to end child marriage. As highlighted in the video interview, poverty and gender inequality are significant factors that lead to child marriage. Many families believe that they are protecting their daughters through early marriage.

The question still remains:

What will it take to end child marriage?

Global awareness is a good start. Now more than ever before, global citizens are becoming aware and taking action to prevent child marriage. On Tuesday, Girls Not Brides released a technical briefing on child marriage. This report highlights the necessary steps that must be addressed in order to bring an end to child marriage.

At Girls’ Globe, we believe promoting, enhancing, and expanding universal access to education and empowering youth advocates are essential components in the fight to prevent child marriage. We’ve done our part. Now it’s your turn. Spread the word about the consequences of child marriage and sign the petition to show your support.

Cover image courtesy of Change.org

Women for Peace

Tomorrow is the day of the Nobel Prize, and therefore Girls’ Globe would like to acknowledge the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates who have been struggling to create change in their communities and to empower women to be agents of change for peace, democracy and human rights.

These women inspire us

to accept differences in each other, to meet people with harmony, to see the good in everyone and to be the change we want to see in our world. They inspire us with their dreams, their accomplishments, their goals and their struggle. Let us join these women in celebration and let us become global citizens and be a voice for women, peace, security and human rights.

The interviews below are taken from Nobel Peace Center, and hopefully, they can inspire you as well.

Interview with Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Prize laureate 2011.

Interview with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Peace Prize laureate 2011.

Interview with Tawakkol Karman, Nobel Peace Prize laureate 2011.