Issue 76 - Article 1

The Yemen crisis and civil society: surviving despite the odds

January 27, 2020
Laurie Lee
A camp for internally displaced people in a school called Ammar Bin Yasser in Aden

In his October 2019 briefing to the UN Security Council, Under-Secretary-General Mark Lowcock warned of slow progress in addressing the humanitarian emergency in Yemen. September 2019 was the deadliest month for civilians, with nearly 400 people killed or injured – 13 a day. The tragic death of four children in Al Hudaydah, killed by unexploded weapons from previous shelling, all from the same family, illustrates how acute the crisis is.

The data paints a grim picture. Around eight in 10 Yemenis are in need of humanitarian or protection assistance, and 14.4 million of the country’s 30.5 million people are in acute need. Some 3.5 million are displaced and 20 million food-insecure, nearly half of whom are in extreme hunger. Nearly 18 million Yemenis lack access to safe water and sanitation, and close to 20 million have no access to adequate healthcare. In 2018, Yemen was ranked 178th out of 189 countries on the UN Human Development Index.

CARE’s gender and conflict analysis in Taiz and Aden Governorates, released in September 2019, shows that the top five concerns of Yemenis in the communities we work with are: difficulties in getting a job; not having enough income for basic needs; not knowing how to get help; the inability to move across conflict areas; and the inability to move safely and securely in mass shelters or within host community areas. CARE Gender and Conflict Analysis, Taiz and Aden Governorates, Republic of Yemen (September 2019). What women, men and their families tell us they want is to become resilient. Earlier this year, I visited Yemen and what stayed with me was the grit of Yemenis and their determination to rebuild their country. The global community owes them the chance to recover, through sustainable aid and a path towards a political solution to the crisis.

CARE has been in Yemen since 1992. Its operations, and those of other international organisations in the country, would be impossible without the efforts of Yemenis themselves, who are working, volunteering and organising at home and abroad to resolve the crisis. As Under-Secretary-General Lowcock noted, this is the world’s largest humanitarian relief operation, and most of the 250 aid agencies operating in the country are Yemeni. Many are small grassroots operations funded by local community members, one-off UN and private foundation grants and other sources, like the organisation Hand in Hand, run by Warda Saleh. Despite the tiny funding pool for local humanitarian organisations, these groups have an outsized impact on the ground and among the media and public.

Gender and protection issues at the forefront of the Yemen crisis

CARE reported in 2018 that more than 3.25 million women of reproductive age faced heightened health and protection risks, including gender-based violence (GBV). According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), more than three million Yemeni women and girls are at risk of GBV and at least 60,000 at risk of sexual violence, including rape. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) notes that incidents of GBV, including rape, sexual assault, intimate partner violence (IPV) and early and forced marriage of girls, has increased by more than 60% since the conflict began. CARE’s gender and conflict analysis reveals heightened anxiety, fear, emotional stress and deteroriorating mental health for both women and men.

CARE’s gender and conflict analysis mirrors lessons from ‘What works to prevent violence against women and girls’ (VAWG) in humanitarian settings. The conflict and humanitarian synthesis brief of the DFID multi-year ‘What works’ programme notes that women are more likely than men to be victims of sexual exploitation during conflict. Conflict also increases poverty, and economic stresses on households also increase VAWG, especially IPV – with economic deprivation and income levels predictors of GBV. The normalisation of rape and sexual violence inside the home is exacerbated by the sustained presence of violence outside of the home. What Works to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls: Conflict and Huamnitarian Synthesis Brief (2019). This accords with CARE’s analysis in Aden and Taiz Governorates, where recorded GBV incidents reveal an upward trend since March 2015, and women are more acutely affected by declining living conditions and services due to the war. CARE Gender and Conflict Analysis, p 10.

The recommendations of ‘What works’, a unique multi-million-pound five-year programme on the evidence of prevalence and prevention of VAWG apply to Yemen:

  • Allocating sufficient resources to meaningfully respond to VAWG, and using those resources to ensure that: VAWG risk mitigation is integrated across funding and field assessment; barriers to accessing GBV services are broken down; and social norm change is tackled to address the root causes of VAWG and reduce survivor stigma. Survivors of GBV in Yemen often lack access to support services or knowledge of where existing services are. CARE Gender and Conflict Analysis, p 11.
  • Addressing multiple forms of VAWG in conflict and humanitarian settings, including IPV and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM). CARE’s gender and conflict analyses reveal multiplicities of GBV experienced by focus group discussants, including verbal abuse of women and physical abuse of children. Ibid, p.14.
  • Prioritising VAWG prevention and gender equality efforts in humanitarian response, alongside access to services. Poverty, gender equality and mental ill health, must be addressed as structural drivers and consequences of VAWG.
  • Meeting the specific needs of adolescent girls living in fragile settings via age-appropriate prevention and response programmes, and an integrated response across education, health and protection sectors. Girls are more likely to be taken from school and subject to CEFM. The acute risks to displaced Yemeni rural girls, for instance, intersect with health and protection needs when their traditional task of collecting water takes place in urban host accommodation. Ibid, pp. 13, 15.

The need for sustainable, long-term aid to (re)generate resilience

CARE’s priorities include actively integrating gender concerns into humanitarian response and sustainable development. While I was in Yemen, it became clear to me – and was articulated by the women and men I met – that rebuilding the country’s economy is essential. CARE-commissioned research released in May 2019 on the gender aspects of multi-purpose cash assistance in the context of Yemen’s food crisis shows the importance of sustainable, long-term aid. This research shows the downside of short-term cash (whether conditional on work or multi-purpose) as well as short-term food aid. In addition to age (being above 65) and significant disability, illness or health concerns being barriers to building resilience, gender differentiation from the research in Abyan and Amran directorates shows that women use cash assistance to build their own and their households’ income. Women were more likely than men to invest in livelihoods and participate in skills training and savings activities. CARE and Action contre La Faim for the European Union, The Gendered Dimension of Multi-Purpose Cash Supporting Disaster Resilience (May 2019) available at: p 27.

Without such interventions, women and children in particular may resort to negative coping strategies including begging (placing them at risk of sexual exploitation) to sustain themselves and their families and households. CARE’s research in Yemen showed that 10 months of multi-purpose cash programming resulted in: Ibid pp. 7-9, 11.

  • Increased savings and investment in livelihoods and reduced borrowing from neighbours and merchants (debtors) in times of crisis.
  • More debt repayment and significant investment in livelihooods, especially in livestock.
  • Reduced negative coping behaviours (by around 70% in Amran and 43% in Abyan Governorates).
  • Transformative approaches to seeking help, with 48% of households from key informant interviews turning to their community when times were hard.
  • Up to a 150% increase in women’s dietary diversity in Amran in the most under-served areas. In Abyan, 64% of households have acceptable food consumption scores.

In addition to providing households with assets such as medium- and long-term cash and/or livestock to begin micro-enterprises, sustainable aid programming to build resilient economies and societies in Yemen would include:

  • Roads built by cash for work programmes to link remote villages to urban centres.
  • Farming rehabilitation, including supporting women’s inclusion in formal agricultural jobs.
  • Providing sustainable water sources and pipes to homes, rather than trucking in water.
  • Repairing urban water and sewage systems for cities, and investing in gender-responsive water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) systems (by consulting and actively engaging women and girls in creating WASH systems).

Ultimately, it is Yemenis themselves who will be crucial to rebuilding Yemen, and the role of the humanitarian community, including organisations like CARE, is to help create the space for positive change through medium- and long-term interventions. To do this, we need more flexible and more medium- and long-term funding – from governments, the United Nations, the private sector and foundations. Rehab Alkhouja, CARE Yemen field officer for women’s economic empowerment,  offers a glimpse of the challenges many Yemenis face every day. ‘When I started my job at CARE … I realised we hear so many stories of women in Yemen, and about how societal gender roles are changing. Many have started to work for the first time as a way of earning extra income for their families, but we don’t hear so much of their struggles to make this happen.’ CARE International is committed to working with Yemeni women and men, and their organisations, to secure a sustainable future.

Laurie Lee is Chief Executive of CARE International UK, based in London.


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