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A Feminist Foreign Policy for Yemen: Women’s Leadership towards Inclusive Peace

The conflict in Yemen is not just a Yemeni war. It’s a war that has been fueled by a variety of external actors, including the Saudi coalition backed by the US, the Houthi rebels who receive arms from Iran, and additional armed groups. In the south of Yemen, there is also a separatist movement led by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and backed by the United Arab Emirates. Despite the STC's promising earlier announcement that they would end their campaign for self-rule and implement the 2019 Riyadh Agreement with the internationally-recognized Yemeni government, the deal fell apart in August 2020 when the STC withdrew from peace talks.

Yet, violence continues, and the COVID-19 pandemic now adds another layer of devastation for communities affected by war, hunger, and poverty. This latest crisis has deepened existing inequalities, with a disproportionate impact on women and girls. As airstrikes decimate communities, armed groups deliberately target women, including by detaining, threatening, and torturing women human rights defenders. Now, with the UNFPA cutting funding for reproductive health programs, 48,000 women are at risk of death from childbirth complications. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are at higher risk of the effects of the virus. The humanitarian crisis and COVID-19 lockdowns are increasing cases of violence against women and girls, early marriage, and sexual harassment. And many small, women-led businesses in Yemen have been forced to close due to the pandemic.

Despite this severe crisis, USAID suspended 80% of humanitarian assistance this March. The World Health Organization (WHO) also cut funding for Yemen, leaving healthcare workers without incentives and benefits — an alarming result of the US pulling funding for the WHO. Further, despite the Saudi coalition’s unilateral ceasefire in April, airstrikes and clashes have resumed, which further strains the weakened health system. As in other parts of the world, women in Yemen make up a majority of health care workers, and also shoulder the responsibilities of caring for the sick. Women and children also comprise 76% of internally displaced people. These factors place them at great risk of contracting COVID-19 — and other diseases, like cholera — while most people do not have access to clean water and soap, nor to health care, as 50% of health facilities have been destroyed by the conflict.

Women and girls in Yemen have been at the forefront of negotiating peace agreements, opening humanitarian aid corridors, and securing the release of prisoners. In fact, Yemeni women were the first to call for a ceasefire in response to COVID-19 — before the UN Secretary General. Muna Luqman, who co-founded Food4Humanity and Women Solidarity Network, Yemen’s largest women’s network, has mediated between armed groups to bring an end to a dispute over water and to secure safety for children. To respond to the pandemic, Food4Humanity has provided medical supplies in Al-Hodeidah and Taiz, trained volunteer medics, and supported disinfecting activities. Food4Humanity has mobilized women and youth to fix water stations, provided seed money to street food vendors, and trained young women to launch livelihood projects, like greenhouses. As frontline responders and drivers of long-term peace, women should be at the heart of efforts to advance a sustainable peace in Yemen.


1. Support a global ceasefire, including a ceasefire in Yemen, and restart political talks.

The US should urge parties to adhere to an immediate nationwide ceasefire in Yemen, including by voicing support for the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2532, which called for a 90-day humanitarian pause in response to the pandemic. A ceasefire would open Yemen to much-needed humanitarian aid and deescalate the effects of the conflict and the pandemic on the Yemeni population, especially women and children. The US should then support a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, including through renewed peace talks, building on the Riyadh Agreement. Peace talks should bring all to the table — including various armed groups, the Southerners, and tribal leaders.

2. Strengthen the meaningful participation and leadership of women and civil society in ceasefire and peace negotiations in Yemen.

The Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017 already requires that the US support the meaningful participation of women in peace and security processes. Putting women - who bring intersectional, inclusive approaches and who are trusted by communities in conflict-zones - front and center in the peace process would broaden the legitimacy of negotiations, address root causes of the conflict, and improve the chance of lasting peace. Women, youth, people with disabilities and civil society should be engaged in designing, drafting, monitoring and implementing ceasefire and peace agreements. The US must make commitments to help implement Yemen’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, including by ensuring the engagement of women-led civil society.

3. Advocate for an end to US weapons sales and military and logistical support to the Saudi coalition.

The US is directly contributing to the worsening conflict in Yemen by selling weapons to the Saudi coalition, with $3 billion in arms sales in 2019. Congress should support bills like the Yemen War Powers Resolution to call for an end to all military and logistical support for the Saudi coalition; to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia; and to demilitarize and defund the Pentagon.

4. Restore humanitarian aid to Yemen, providing core and flexible funding to grassroots women’s organizations.

In March, USAID suspended $73 million of its $85 million budget for humanitarian assistance in Yemen, citing problems with food diversion. However, cutting off aid in the midst of a global pandemic impacts vulnerable people and fuels violence — while elites can remain insulated. USAID must renew and increase humanitarian assistance for food, health, sanitation and water. To address challenges in aid delivery, USAID should provide core and flexible funding, including grants for small, local, women-led organizations that can reach communities in need. The US must also rejoin and restore funding to the World Health Organization, enabling it to restore its presence in Yemen.

5. Strengthen the Yemeni government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The US should assist the Yemeni government in its pandemic response. This includes supporting Yemen’s health sector through masks, PPE, ventilators, and funding for health facilities. The US should urge the Saudi coalition to fund salaries for public employees and retirees, many of whose salaries and pensions have been suspended. Finally, the US representative to the International Monetary Fund should support the issuance of $3 trillion in Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) globally. Yemen’s government would receive a portion of these funds, at no cost to the US.

6. Recognize the conflict and pandemic’s gendered impacts and respond to them accordingly.

In providing humanitarian and development aid to Yemen, the US should recognize the gender-specific impacts of the crisis - along with intersections with class, race, sexuality, disability, and other identities. Existing gender inequality in the country is worsened by the conflict, with violence against women and child marriages on the rise. Aid programs and policies should be reviewed for their impacts on people of different genders. Further, supporting grassroots organizations to address violence against women, child marriage, attacks on women human rights defenders, women’s reproductive health, and girls’ education should be a priority.

August 24, 2020  / Middle East / Yemen