A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
The Yemeni state being absent and unable to provide services to its citizens due to the current conflict, national and international humanitarian organizations are thankfully taking the lead in responding to the people’s needs. However, regardless of the nature of the organization, the operations of humanitarian organizations are affected by patriarchy, impacting women as employees and beneficiaries. This patriarchy system has been dominant in Yemeni social structure for centuries.
Humanitarian organizations follow clear policies and guidelines emphasizing gender equality and equity both with regards to their own staff and their interventions on the ground. Despite that, women remain on the junior levels within organizations’ staff hierarchy. Plenty of Yemeni women hold positions as assistants, casual labors such as data collectors, or cleaners. while Yemeni men hold more senior positions as officers or managers, allowing them to take decisions and lead programs.
The patriarchal system impedes women from aspiring higher positions because both men and women believe consciously or subconsciously that women are not able to perform outside of the traditional gender role assigned to them, this also includes leading and challenging positions within organizations. But this also results in an approach to humanitarian aid that is shaped by patriarchal norms .This is a consequence of women inequality before the war. And it is these norms that cause the silence of women, that prevent women from acting to claim their rights. They were taught to be quiet and polite in order to gain the community’s and the family’s acceptance. In additional to the prejudice of men against women that they are not suitable for different types of work.
Society in Yemen has strictly defined gender roles for both women and men, with the latter being constrained to perform within the private sphere. In all parts of Yemen, women are obliged to cover themselves in black, and forced to lives within the patriarchal system. The patriarchy system also segregates women and men. In some areas in Yemen, women have no inheritance rights or access to services such as education or health, due to these norms. Women cannot make decisions about their own future. Any deviation from these norms will lead to their own and their families’ stigmatization.
The fear of stigma and unjust social norms haunts women along their lifetime, ultimately leading to low participation of women in public life. Attaining basic human rights such as education, work opportunities, and access to health services is a luxury for women, just because of their gender. Women in Yemen are treated as inferior citizens who are simply born for marriage; the obligations of marriage, such as household work and bearing children being their only purpose.
On top of this, patriarchy in Yemen puts women in a position requiring them to follow male guardianship. whether he is a husband, a brother or even a son, and breaking these chains will cast women out the circle of social acceptance. For example, in many families if a female wants to travel for work, she must requires a permission from her brother, father or even son. On top of that, authorities reject women traveling without her Mahram (male guardian), even when she travels for work. This is also one of the motivations of organizations to keep women in the simple positions mentioned above.
Due to these strict social norms women are vulnerable only because they are women. The current conflict in Yemen has increased their vulnerability in terms of their access to resources, as well as opportunities to participate politically and equality within the work place. The current conflict puts a tremendous burden on women because they are now solely responsible to meet the family’s needs.
Within humanitarian aid organizations, male staff who is responsible to distribute aid, often do not understand the specific needs of women. Not in the same manner female staff could understand these needs. Nevertheless, men remain in the decision-making positions within aid organizations.
Beneficiaries are selected on the basis of their vulnerability. Because of this women are treated as passive receivers of assistance not as active actors in facilitating the humanitarian interventions in their communities. Despite the humanitarian organization’s vow to empower women, this circumstance reinforces the existing gender inequalities within the society.
Although women are identified by organizations as most vulnerable, aid often does not reach them directly. It is common for male crowds to form around the assistance distribution points in the field. This raises the question whether humanitarian assistance is in fact delivered to the most affected people. This situation at the distribution points is often ignored by humanitarian organizations, demonstrating merely their adherence to the Yemeni patriarchal system. By that humanitarian organizations enhance the existing unjust social norms and strengthen the male domination over women.
Another example of this is the selection of income generating activities for women. In micro- financing programs, women are usually given traditional activities such as sewing or handicraft to generate an income. These choices are a result of the patriarchy that limits women’s options and opportunities for their livelihoods. Other sectors, such as maintenance, mechanics, and electronics are dominated by men and are not fully accessible for women. Does it not even make sense for women to be able to fix the electronic devices they require for housework? Society still does not believe in the women’s capabilities to handle such livelihood activities for many reasons. Humanitarian organization apparently believe in the equality of women and men. But still do not make a change and apply this equality. They are stopped by the society’s resistance to change.
Humanitarian organizations must be brave enough to challenge the patriarchal norms and to stand by women. They must stop paying lip service to gender equality only, and start fighting for women’s rights in Yemen. They must help Yemeni women to claim their rights. Local and international organizations should put more women in decision-making positions. And they have the obligation to empower women, and support them to access services, such as education, health to improve their welfare. In addition, Achieving equality isn’t an easy goal to reach. But dealing with gender equity and equality is most needed to positively change women’s status.
Humanitarian organizations especially the international ones have the power to start the social change in Yemen in terms of gender equality, and to eliminate patriarchal norms eventually. Use the opportunity to really make a difference and fight for women’s rights, despite the resistance in society.
Alma Hashem, a Yemeni feminist, working in international humanitarian aid sector in Yemen. She is a member of regional Intersectional Feminist Collective. she has been involved in many campaigns advocating for women rights and political participation. She represented women activists in different international trainings and conferences. She was active volunteer as a co-founder for the ‘Basement’ an exchange cultural forum.