For over four years the people of Yemen have been at the mercy of war, compounding decades of insecurity. Expert assessments, situation reports and media portrayals tend to tell a similar story of the human toll the war has exacted – the largest humanitarian crisis in the world; 80% of the country’s population in need of aid; over 20 million living with food insecurity; collapsed health services; and limited access for humanitarian actors due to insecurity. Women and girls face particular hardship: the war has exacerbated patriarchal, tribal and religious discrimination, and gender-based violence (GBV) has increased dramatically. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) reports that three million women and girls are at risk of violence. See https://yemen.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/UNFPA%20Yemen%202018%20Response%20Plan%20-%20Aug.%20version-compressed.pdf  CARE and Action Contre La Faim for the European Union, The Gendered Dimension of Multi-Purpose Cash Supporting Disaster Resilience (May 2019) available at: http://www.cashlearning.org/resources/library/1384-the-gendered-dimension-of-multi-purpose-cash-supporting-disaster-resilience?keywords=®ion=middle_east&country=all&year=all&organisation=all§or=all&modality=all&language=all&payment_method=all&document_type=all&searched=1 p 27. Forced early marriage has increased three-fold. See for example https://www.rescue.org/report/protection-participation-and-potential-women-and-girls-yemens-war This violence, and the patriarchal norms and attitudes it stems from, further constrains women and girls’ access to services.
While shocking and deserving of attention, the statistics and stories also obscure the courage and resilience of Yemeni women and girls and the vital work of women-focused and women-led organisations. Recognising the critical role national women’s organisations play, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) sought to listen to and amplify their perspectives and their experiences of responding to the needs of women and girls. Specifically, we wanted to know how these long-standing responders understood the opportunities for and barriers to the delivery of programming for women and girls, and their perceptions of how the international humanitarian community has engaged with national civil society.
In-depth interviews were conducted with two partners, the Yemen Women’s Union (YWU) and Al Hikma. Established in 1968, the YWU operates across Yemen delivering psychosocial support, health services, shelter and livelihoods opportunities to women and youth. Al Hikma, established in 1990, delivers a multi-sectoral programme including protection and GBV services, alongside shelter, nutrition and health activities. This article also draws on partner and IRC experiences of programming (IRC has been operational in Yemen since 2012, and has provided services for women and girls specifically since 2017).
Reflecting documented trends in Yemen, YWU and Al Hikma stressed the increased burden the conflict has placed on the large number of women and adolescent girls who have become heads of households, and corresponding exposure to risks of GBV for those taking on roles outside the home. Staff from Al Hikma told us that ‘when women access income opportunities instead of men it creates a switch in power and backlash from men which can lead to intimate partner violence … the security situation also impacts on women’s lives. Movement restrictions were part of their reality but it is now exacerbated as men want to protect women from the risks of GBV at checkpoints in order to preserve their honour’. Finally, concerns were raised that the fear of GBV and limited livelihoods opportunities have led to increased rates of depression and suicide among women.
Evidence from national and international NGO programmes illustrates how the increasing and complex needs of women and girls, and the efforts of NGOs and women’s organisations, have in some sectors resulted in a parallel rise in levels of community acceptance for programming designed to address these needs. For example, YWU told us that ‘providing shelter to IDPs has been a good opportunity to gain acceptance as community members got to see what we were doing was good for the population’. Recognising changing gender dynamics, the YWU, Al Hakim and IRC all work with men and boys to increase acceptance of support to women and reduce the risks facing women and girls. National partners noted the importance of vocational training as an entry point to discuss and transform men’s behaviour and attitudes towards the new roles women are playing.
In contrast to increasing acceptance of general programming for women, and despite clear evidence of rising GBV, community resistance to addressing sensitive topics such as rape, forced marriage of girls and sexual violence remains high. Al Hikma staff told us that ‘the situation in many rural areas is worse now than before the war … our work is perceived as efforts to break up families or encouraging women to seek divorce’. This challenging social and cultural environment demands long-term engagement with communities to establish dialogue, shift attitudes towards programming for GBV survivors and women’s rights, and reinforce the role of national NGOs and women’s organisations. Al Hikam also stressed the important role that women’s centres can play as both a point of service delivery and an entry point for raising awareness of women’s and girls’ needs.
In 2017 and 2018 IRC sought to establish women-friendly spaces in three governorates. Although it took seven months of engagement with communities and community leaders before the programme could begin, this is now delivering positive results. These spaces provide confidential case management to survivors of GBV and psychosocial support to women and girls, and community outreach has resulted in increasing recognition of the risks of forced marriage of girls. IRC has seen examples of families seeking support when adolescent girls want to get married or when a family is organising a marriage of a very young girl. Through dialogue with the community it has been possible in some cases to negotiate agreements of early engagement rather than early marriage, delaying pregnancy and protecting young girls from the risk of maternal death, violence and disability, loss of education and employment and compromised reproductive health. See https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/ADOLESCENT%20PREGNANCY_UNFPA.pdf
The YWU also highlighted the implications of an overall decline in the quality and capacity of national-level governance for GBV survivors. Staff told us that ‘There is a general mistrust [by women] of police forces because of the impunity of perpetrators of GBV. The fear of retaliation from perpetrators and their families is a constant threat for women and girl’s security and dignity’. YWU staff stressed the importance of international partners prioritising efforts to work with local security forces, police and legal actors to increase their understanding of GBV risks and acceptance of the role of national authorities in addressing the risks facing women and girls.
Supporting national capacity
The acute nature of the crisis has prompted an expansion of international assistance and pledges of financial support. Newly formed national NGOs have received international funding to deliver humanitarian assistance, and have sought support and guidance from longer-standing national partners. A recent report by the Sana’a Centre suggests that the expansion of national NGOs is increasing employment and leadership roles for women. The report notes that ‘women are more likely to work for national NGOs than men [and] have been involved in … managing projects on gender-based violence … as well as providing psychiatric support’. See http://sanaacenter.org/files/Rethinking_Yemens_Economy-policy_brief_13.pdf However, YWU and Al Hikma were concerned that much of the available funding is heavily focused on short-term relief. Current structures were seen as missing opportunities to support national NGOs and women’s organisations to participate in the response, and lay the groundwork for more effective national response to the needs of women and girls.
In a context where GBV programming is still a relatively new area of expertise, and recruiting specialised and skilled national staff is an ongoing challenge, it is crucial that both national and international partners can access funding that allows the time and space for capacity strengthening to support and nurture Yemeni staff and civil society responses to the needs of women and girls. A commitment to comprehensive capacity development of GBV specialists is a key indicator of the Call to Action, and provides an accountability framework for donors and agencies alike. See https://www.calltoactiongbv.com/what-we-do
Funding cycles pose a key challenge in this regard. Many humanitarian projects are funded for less than 12 months, and national partners often find it difficult to secure the longer-term funding open to some international partners. Furthermore, the time required to secure sub-agreements from the authorities for project implementation, combined with the time required to engage local communities, often leaves limited space within a project grant to invest in comprehensive training opportunities for national staff.
Reflecting trends in many humanitarian responses, local partners report the exclusion of national agencies from coordination meetings, and that assessments overlook national expertise and knowledge and the community connections that can play critical roles in supporting acceptance and providing the local and sub-local contextual understanding critical for the delivery of effective and efficient assistance.
While this is not specific to Yemen, it is clear from our consultations that national NGOs do not feel the international humanitarian community is fulfilling the commitments it has made to itself and those it seeks to support. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)’s ‘Reference Module for Cluster Coordination at Country Level’ defines the objective of the cluster approach as being to ‘make the international humanitarian community better organized … so that it can be a better partner for affected people, host Governments, local authorities, [and] local civil society’. See https://www.who.int/health-cluster/about/cluster-system/cluster-coordination-reference-module-2015.pdf Such commitments are reinforced by the Call to Action, which argues for 30% of national GBV coordination mechanisms to be co-led by a national partner by 2018, with a target of 50% by 2020. See https://www.calltoactiongbv.com/what-we-do
Conclusions and recommendations
Analysis of the impact of the war in Yemen illustrates the acute and specific needs of women and girls. This article has sought to highlight the role that national NGOs and women’s organisations play in meeting immediate needs, and how, through more effective collaboration, the international community, working alongside women’s organisations, can contribute to improved well-being for Yemeni women now and in the future. It is clear that, without the knowledge, expertise and long-term presence of such organisations, these objectives cannot be met. However, despite commitments to capacity strengthening, for example in the Charter for Change, See https://charter4change.files.wordpress.com/2019/06/charter4change-2019.pdf the current structures of the response and humanitarian partnerships do not allow for the depth and longevity required. This analysis leads us to a number of conclusions and areas of learning.
- While attitudes towards programming for women and girls are shifting, targeted service provision for women in sectors including livelihoods and shelter remains critical to meet women’s changing needs, and to provide an entry point for dialogue with communities to establish trust and support women’s protection and GBV programming.
- When seeking to expand services for women and girls, international partners should work closely with established national women’s organisations who often have long- term relationships with target communities and more in-depth understanding of community dynamics and priorities. These partnerships should establish regular opportunities for capacity strengthening and two-way learning that maximise local organisations’ understanding of the local context and communities and international actors’ technical expertise and resources.
- Donors should support national and international partners through multi-year funding agreements that allow the time for capacity strengthening that contributes to improved service provision, and further establish the role of women-led organisations and Yemeni civil society in maintaining the provision of services when international funding ends.
- International partners, working in partnership with national organisations, should seek opportunities to engage national authorities in efforts to build awareness and understanding of GBV and the vital importance of addressing impunity. These efforts are critical to global commitments to preventing sexual violence and exploitation and to the delivery of UNSCR 2267, which calls for Member States and the United Nations to support affected countries to ‘enhance the capacity of military structures to address and prevent sexual violence’. See http://unscr.com/en/resolutions/2467
- Reflecting learning from across global humanitarian responses, proactive steps should be taken to better include national women’s organisations and NGOs in response coordination. Through the provision of financial and technical support, priority should be given to identifying and supporting national partners to co-lead clusters and sub-clusters, and participate in Yemen’s Strategic Advisory Group (SAG), thereby addressing commitments made in the Call to Action.
Genevieve Gauthier is Senior Program Coordinator and Marcus Skinner is Senior Policy Advisor at the International Rescue Committee. With special thanks to the Yemen Women’s Union (YWU) and Al Hikma.