Editorial: Violence against women is neither inevitable nor acceptable

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As we commemorate International Women’s Day, we look back at a year with shocking crimes of violence against women and girls worldwide. We all remember the story of the Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai who was shot on 9 October last year, while returning home on a school bus. In Yemen, some girls are forced to marry when they are still children, sometimes as young as eight years old.

Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread violations of human rights. In Yemen, women and girls are victims of different forms of violence. Through a recent survey carried out by UNFPA it appears that harassment on the streets, mainly of women living in the cities, are among the daily aggressions they face. Other forms of violence are more hidden, often not well documented and many cases, especially of domestic violence, are often never reported.

Gender-based violence is a global problem and gender-based inequality, exclusion and discrimination are at the heart of gender-based violence. In India, Dalit women experience high rates of sexual violence committed by men of higher castes. Indigenous women in Canada are five times more likely than other women of the same age to die as a result of violence.

Gender-based violence has close links to poverty. Recent studies on the global recession show that economic downturns and increasing poverty can trigger an increase in domestic violence.

All women and girls have a right to live free of violence. Violence against women is neither inevitable nor acceptable; it is a violation of human rights for which states are accountable. Violence against women, which is fueled by gender-based inequality, exclusion and discrimination, is a constraint to sustainable human development.

Men and boys must be part of the solution to end gender-based violence. A review of the evidence from 58 programmes around the world that focus on men and boys in addressing gender-based violence show a decrease in self-reported use of physical, sexual and psychological violence in intimate relationships and increased social support of spouses through shifts in community norms.

On this day, I wish to echo UN Secretary General’s words when he says that “This year on International Women’s Day, we convert our outrage into action. We declare that we will prosecute crimes against women – and never allow women to be subjected to punishments for the abuses they have suffered.”

I wish to say to all Yemenis, especially young people, that the future of Yemen is up to you. You will determine what kind of future you want and what kind of society you wish for your daughters and sons to grow up in. Change might take time, but step by step, you will find the future you are now developing evolving. During that process, and as part of that future, all Yemenis need to take part in some way. Yemen cannot afford to neglect the capacities, strengths, inputs, ideas, visions and uniqueness of half its population. Women of Yemen’s voice have to be heard.

Report: Women in Yemen

Following the uprising in Tunis and Egypt, protesters in Yemen, both men and women, went to the streets asking for equity and dignity. The uprising that continued for over a year surprised the world not only for being largely a peaceful uprising, but also because of the visibility of Yemeni women. Women have the right, and claim, the same equal opportunities to participate in making peace and to ensure equality for all citizens.

Through programmes and agencies on the ground, and with around 800 staff, the United Nations is working in Yemen on a wide range of issues, always with a gender lens. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and UN Women support the Yemeni government’s Women National Committee (WNC) and Civic Society Organizations to promote women’s active participation in the National Dialogue. Through the National Coalition that was established, 5200 women and men in 10 governorates were encouraged to express themselves and engage in decision making processes. UNFPA also supports WNC to review laws that discriminate against women, especially regarding reproductive health and rights, including early marriage, and to report on progress made related to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

“The National Dialogue is a unique opportunity for women to express their needs, participate in the design of a new state, and contribute to social and economic development” says Marc Vandenberghe, UNFPA Representative in Yemen.

Opportunities created by reducing Gender Gaps

Yemen got the lowest score out of 146 countries on the Gender Inequality Index (GII) as presented in the latest Human Development Report (HDR) in 2011. The Gender Inequality Index reflected women’s disadvantage in three dimensions—reproductive health, empowerment and the labour market. William Orme, one spokesperson for the HDR, said that “It’s long been understood that if you are going to choose one magic thing, one key thing, that you are going to invest in for development, it is girls and women; schooling, women’s rights and participation. It has dramatic, demonstrable benefits for society.”

More recently, the World Economic Forum presented its Global Gender Gap report last year. The report includes an index which tracks the strong correlation between a country’s gender gap and its national competitiveness. The rankings are designed to create greater awareness among a global audience of the challenges posed by gender gaps and the opportunities created by reducing them. Because women account for one-half of a country’s potential talent base, a nation’s competitiveness in the long term depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilizes its women. Also in this report, which operates with a national gender gaps index benchmarked on economic, political, education and health criteria, Yemen occupies the last place in the overall ranking of 135 countries.

Gender relations in Yemen are shaped by diverse traditions, often labeled as being religious, cultural, social or political. Diversity among women within the country are also observed, for example, there is a great differences between rural and urban women with regard to educational opportunities, access to healthcare, the gender division of labor, fertility levels and gender relations. A study on rural women has shown that rural women in Yemen have very little space to share in decision making.

Rural Women

IFAD, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, has been involved in development initiatives in Yemen since 1979 and has sought to ensure that rural women benefit from its investments. IFAD’s country programme focuses mainly on the women economic empowerment as a basis for their social empowerment. Accordingly, the interventions facilitate increased access to the natural resource base, production and economic services, and markets as well as enhancing their technical and managerial capacities.

In total, IFAD financed programmes have provided three-level training courses to 18,319 women in Dhamar and Al-Dhala – which facilitated the formation of 276 community saving & credit groups. These groups have in turn financed 2185 micro-enterprises to date. In addition, the construction and rehabilitation of 299 km roads 5376 house-roof rain harvesting cisterns have greatly assisted in easing the labour burden on women, in particular in reducing the time to 54 min from 90 min for collecting water. “I feel better than ever before, and above all I can see the light at the end of the tunnel that my family and I have been living in for decades. This is just the beginning, not the end,” says Ibtsam, 19 years old woman in Talhamah Village, Jaharan District, Dhammar Province, following participation in a community and credit saving group.

Women – victims and solution

Faced with a humanitarian crisis “women are not only victims of hunger, they are also the most effective solution to combating it,” said Lubna Alaman, World Food Programme’s (WFP) Country Director in Yemen. “Women play a key role in guaranteeing food security for the household as food in the hands of women is far more likely to reach the mouths of needy children. It’s why we put women at the centre of our efforts to fight hunger.”

In Yemen, WFP focuses on women through three main activities: Firstly, the 3.9 million food insecure people scheduled to receive emergency food assistance this year are scattered across 557,145 households, of which 40 percent, or 228,430, are headed by women. WFP intends to further increase the proportion of women holding ration cards, receiving household food rations and being in leadership positions in food management committees. Secondly, in the 2012-2013 school year, WFP is delivering take-home rations to 53,000 school girls and their families across Yemen, and plans to increase that number to 58,000 for the 2013-2014 year. This programme is designed to keep young girls in school, as well as improve the food security of the girls and their families. It also helps address Yemen’s critical gender gap, high female illiteracy rates, high rate of early marriages, and high population growth. Thirdly, WFP plans to assist 157,000 malnourished pregnant women and nursing mothers in Yemen in 2013, up from its 2012 target of 66,000. This approach will address high malnutrition among women (estimated at 25%) as well as high acute and chronic malnutrition among young children by supporting a robust start of life; malnutrition in the first 1,000 days since conception can lead to irreversible damage to children’s minds and bodies. Providing the right food at the right time will offer a critical contribution to improved growth and development. In a life-cycle perspective this too will contribute to a healthy future for young girls as they grow into adult women and have children of their own.

End violence against women

The official United Nations theme for International Women's Day 2013 is “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women”. Globally, three out of ten women in the world report having experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime. In most cases, the abuser is a member of the woman’s own family, according to a study done by World Health Organization (WHO) in 2005. Gender-based violence increases in times of armed conflict, crisis, transition and socio-economic stress. The breakdown in protection mechanisms that occurs typically increases rates of violence, sexual harassment and trafficking of women and children.

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), through its local and international implementing partners (IP), provides women and girl refugees in Yemen with health-, protection-, and food services, as well as assistance to tackle other challenges faced by urban refugees. UNHCR is also committed to countering sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Every year, UNHCR celebrate the 16 Day of Activism to Stop Gender Violence. SGBV prevention and response is a key component of all UNHCR operations. UNHCR Yemen has allocated 1,284,296 million USD in 2013 especially to projects aimed at preventing and responding to SGBV.

The lack of protection mechanisms affects the entire population, but hardest hit are often people living in already vulnerable situations as, among others, refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants.
Women arriving to Yemen from the Horn of Africa are vulnerable to robbers, rapists, abductors and traffickers. Many flee from war, persecution, and famine in their own countries, Yemen serves as either a transit country or destination.

Globally, as well as in Yemen, women migrants predominantly work in the informal sector – often in unregulated professions such as domestic work, agriculture or services; this makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Generally, the majority of victims of human trafficking are also women and girls.

“For many women and girls, migration is a way to fulfill their potential, to develop and to exercise their human rights. But being both a migrant and female also exposes them to risk – the risk of being subjected to violence,” says Ambassador William Swing, Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Migrant women in Yemen

In Yemen, migrant women and girls are especially vulnerable to human trafficking; sometimes Yemeni women are also affected. IOM and partner organizations currently conduct screening and direct assistance of vulnerable migrants and victims of trafficking in Sana’a, Aden, Haradh, Taiz and Hodeida. The types of direct assistance provided are psychosocial care, medical care, shelter provision, legal services, life-skills training, economic empowerment, distribution of ‘Dignity and personal hygiene kits’, referral to UNHCR and assisted voluntary return. In addition, IOM has ongoing counter trafficking awareness raising campaigns (including a hotline service) in Aden implemented through a local partner.

Some hardship stories do have joyful endings. Amira was apprehended by the Yemeni Police while wandering the streets of Haradh in a totally confused state, one day in 2009. She was thought to be an irregular migrant, and was then sent to the Immigration Detention Centre in Sana’a. While detained, a Yemeni Red Crescent (YRC) volunteer noticed her state of severe psychological distress and requested permission from the detention authority to have her released and brought to the Sana’a Psychiatric Hospital. She then contacted IOM to support Amira’s treatment as well as to provide her with regular psychosocial counseling to expedite her recovery. After more than 2 years of hospitalization and continuous counseling, Amira regained some of her memory as well as remembered her identity. At IOM’s request, YRC traced her family, and on 9 December 2012, Amira was at last reunited with her family, after over three years of separation. Overjoyed by her return and with tear-filled exuberance, Amira’s family conveyed their thanks to the IOM and YRC teams for their relentless efforts throughout the years to bring their daughter home.

The Government of Yemen has recently formalized a National Technical Committee for combating Trafficking in Persons (TIP) with the issuance of a decree on 8/11/2012. This Committee has high-level representation from a number of ministries and meets on a weekly basis. IOM participated in its formation through support for consultations and workshops, currently participates actively, and has been requested by the committee to support the development of a national strategy to combat human trafficking.

The future you want

“As the UN we hope that the national dialogue conference succeeds as it is critical for the future of Yemen. We also hope to see a Yemen where democracy is successful and where human rights for all men and women is respected. I wish to say to all Yemenis, especially young people, that the future of Yemen is up to you. You will determine what kind of future you want and what kind of society you wish for your daughters and sons to grow up in. Change might take time, but step by step, you will find the future you are now developing evolving. During that process, and as part of that future, all Yemenis need to take part in some way. Yemen cannot afford to neglect the capacities, strengths, inputs, ideas, visions and uniqueness of half its population. Women of Yemen’s voice have to be heard,” says Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen.