Women have been instrumental to movements happening across the Middle East and North Africa. The “Arab Spring” has been an opportune time for women to make their voices heard and increase their political and civic participation. In Yemen, women were among the earliest and most vocal protesters for social and political change. Yemeni women have participated in both urban and rural mass demonstrations across the nation, and assisted behind the scenes in protesters’ camps by preparing food. During this transitional period, women are now faced with the challenge of continuing their presence in the day-to-day protests while becoming advocates for enduring women’s rights in Yemen.
Women’s political involvement and leadership can ensure their participation in decision-making about their communities and families. According to Mary Hope Schwoebel of the United States Institute of Peace, more and more Yemeni women feel compelled to contribute to the political changes in their country. However, research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and the International Federation of Electoral Systems (IFES) suggests that access to education, employment, health care, assets, independence, freedom of movement in public spaces, and political office is currently limited for many Yemini women.
Only seven percent of Yemeni women work for pay, compared to 61 percent of men. At the same time, over half (56 percent) of all women have no formal education; this creates a major obstacle for women’s independence and economic, civic, and political participation. And, although education rates are increasing among the younger generation of women, 55 percent of women 18-34 feel their freedom to leave the house without permission or supervision from parents or husbands or other male relatives is completely restricted–another barrier to women’s participation in public arenas.
IWPR and IFES research also indicates that many Yemenis are opposed to women holding political office. For example, one-third of Yemeni men (35 percent) and nearly one quarter (23 percent) of Yemeni women say they strongly or somewhat oppose female political candidates. At a workshop held in Cairo in December 2010 on IWPR-IFES research, Yemeni women emphasized that security dangers and conflict in many parts of their country have produced a situation in which often people would prefer that none of their family members, male or female, pursue public office.
Instead of formal political participation, some regional experts argue that Yemeni women will exercise most of their future leadership in the nongovernmental sector of Yemen; however, responses to the IWPR-IFES survey show that only a very small percentage of women, no more than 7 percent, report being members of civic and political organizations. In fact, compared to nearly 47 percent of Yemeni men, only five percent of women reported membership in political parties.
Women’s political empowerment and civic engagement need expansion if Yemini women are to fully participate in the future decision-making for their communities and society on all levels. Increased opportunities to participate in the public sphere will be crucial moving forward for women to remain central agents in and beyond the political transformational period, ultimately ensuring true social change.
Minjon Tholen is a Research Intern at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research