Yemeni women call for 30% representationIn Yemen, women’s organisations have joined forces to voice one unified message: a demand that 30% of all decision-making positions be filled by women. Bilqis Abu-Osba is one of the women behind this coalition. She believes that with a 30% representation Yemen’s women will lead the country towards a more secure future.
About the Global Gender Report
For many years, Yemen has consistently been ranked last (136th) by The World Economic Forum in its annual equality survey – The Global Gender Gap Report. In particular, Yemeni women’s lack of constitutional rights, a low representation in the labour market, lack of educational opportunities and the country’s problem with child marriage and gender-related violence all serve to cement Yemen at the bottom of the international report as the country in the world where women are worst off.
Despite this, there is some hope ahead for the women of Yemen. The latest Global Gender Gap Report from 2013 shows that Yemen is also among the seven countries in the world where existing conditions for women are increasing most rapidly.
Bilqis Abu-Osba, professor of political science at The University of Sana’a, is one of the women working to improve women’s rights in Yemen, and she has one clear goal: when Yemen’s new constitution is drawn up in 2014 she wants it to include a paragraph that, by means of quota system, ensures that 30% of all political post are held by women.
Bilqis Abu-Osba has seven years’ experience behind her as the first and only woman on Yemen’s anti-corruption committee, and she knows the barriers that face women when they try to gain political influence. Today, she is one of the founders of the Volunteers’ Alliance for Women’s Rights – a broad coalition of civil-rights organisation (CROs) and activists who are all working to achieve a 30% level of political representation for women.
A new generation of women on the way forward
Bilqis Abu-Osba is well aware that achieving this goal will require a massive amount of lobbying, not to mention a good dose of strategic thinking. Nonetheless, she remains optimistic, despite the fact that the country has been stuck in a long transition period since the ousting of ex-president Saleh in 2012 which came about as a result of the Arab spring revolutions across the region. On the one hand, the country’s internal security hangs in the balance; on the other hand, there is now a unique opportunity to achieve positive change. And Bilqis Abu-Osba chooses to focus on the latter of the two scenarios.
“During the revolution, many things changed for the women of Yemen. In the past, women couldn’t venture out into the street unaccompanied, and a woman staying out all night on her own would have been unimaginable. But during the revolution women demonstrated on an equal footing to men. They demonstrated in the streets and spent the night in the city’s squares – and not just for one day or two, but for months on end. This has led to the emergence in Yemen of a brand-new generation of independent young women. They want to be educated and they want to work; they speak English well and they are good at communication on the Internet,” explains Bilqis Abu-Osba
Unrelenting pressure to achieve influence
Even though the women fought side by side with men during the revolution, they should not expect to be automatically included in the new political system. The road to achieving political influence is long, arduous and never ending, not least because Yemen’s traditional tribal culture and conservative Muslim parties are fighting against it and only focussed on their own narrow agendas.
Everybody is retreating to their particular corner of Yemen in order to gain as much influence as possible in the new state. For those organisations working to advance women’s political participation this means a constant fight to keep a foot in the door of the decision-making process.
“When the revolution was over, all political parties and political factions were invited to take part in the national dialogue aimed at solving the country’s problems and creating a new Yemen. But despite the recommendations of The Gulf Initiative that women should be included in the national dialogue, the same thing happened in Yemen as did in many other countries: as soon as the revolution was over, women were forgotten. None of the parties lived up to including 30% of women in the co-operation. So we took to the streets and gathered in a huge protest. This forced the administration behind the national dialogue to go back to the parties and demand 30% representation for women. And finally, we got it.
“When they launched the national dialogue, women were represented in all sectors. Fine, we said, but that’s not enough. We also need to establish a sector that focusses solely on women, don’t forget that. Our main goal is still to get a quota system written into the final constitution, ensuring 30% participation of women in political work,” stresses Bilqis Abu-Osba.
Together, the women of Yemen are strong
The work of the Volunteers’ Alliance for Women’s Rights coalition adheres to the strategy that the greater the number of people reiterating the same message the greater the chance of being heard – and the greater the force will be for changing Yemeni society.
“We don’t plan on stopping any time soon. Our coalition is growing all the time. We’ve joined forces with The National Women’s Committee, Business Women in Yemen and a number of other national initiatives. Even though we all have our own agendas, we’re right now working together to promote one single message: 30% women in top-level positions in society, tells Bilqis Abu-Osba
In her work with the coalition, Bilqis Abu-Osba draws upon her international work experience and upon her experience from the university. Among other things, she has closely followed the work done by Egyptian women to secure a paragraph covering equality in the new Egyptian constitution.
“In many ways, our situation is just like the situation in Egypt. In Yemen, however, we’re still in a transition period. Now is the time for us to work hard to achieve what we want. The question is how do we take things up to the next level. One of the things we’ve done differently in Yemen is creating this broad, strong coalition. And I believe that we will win as long as we work hard to get the whole of society on our side,” explains Bilqis Abu-Osba
30% representation on the constitutional committee
A great deal of work is needed to convince the society in the world’s least egalitarian society to support an equality paragraph in any new constitution. Because of this, the coalition of women’s organisations is working at many levels simultaneously. One day, the focus could be on getting the country’s television journalists to get the president to promise a 30% quota on national television, and thereafter hold him to his word. On another day, they could be travelling out to Yemen’s rural districts to meet with local politicians and tribal leaders. In order to negotiate the possibilities of achieving their goals, they meet with UN representatives, international ambassadors and even representatives from the Islah party, which is closely related to The Muslim Brotherhood. They do this even though meetings with Islah offer little hope of success, as members of that party are Salafists and represent the coalition’s strongest opponents.
“In order to win, we have to build as broad a coalition as possible. We’ve already got a lot of men on our side, and we also need to make women in the rural areas aware of their rights. After all, women make up 50% of the population. We also want to have a share of the power. But if we miss out on this historic opportunity to make our mark on the constitution now, I don’t know if we’ll ever get the chance again,” tells Bilqis Abu-Osba, adding that the coalition is also working to secure that 30% of the working party charged with forming the new constitution are women.
“What’s most important is that the new constitution is also written with ‘a woman’s perspective’, as we say in Arabic. If women aren’t involved in the process, we risk our problems being overlooked,” tells Bilqis Abu-Osba.
Political involvement is the key to solving Yemen’s equality problems
There are undoubtedly those who would claim that Yemeni women face greater problems than that of political involvement. For years, women’s organisations have been fighting to achieve an 18-year minimum age for marriage in order to tackle the country’s widespread problem of child marriage. Other pressing issues include illiteracy among women, which stands at over 50%, and the issue of violence against women.
For Bilqis Abu-Osba, achieving a 30% representation of women is exactly the solution needed to deal with the broad spectrum of problems facing Yemeni women at all levels of society.
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Bilqis Abu-Osba strongly believes that when women take a share of the power and are involved in a share of decision-making processes they also will have an opportunity to influence the law and initiate change from within.
“Once women hold 30% of parliamentary seats, we’ll be able to change the family law, improve a woman’s right to education and work towards ending gender-related violence. Child marriage is also a major problem, and for many years the Salafists have opposed the setting of a minimum marriage age at 18. Up until now, they’ve always succeeded in blocking it, but if many women enter the parliament I believe that we can change this, too. We want to change Yemeni society and create a new Yemen where women have greater rights,” tells Bilqis Abu-Osba.
Over a longer perspective, she sees the women’s contribution to public life as a long-term investment in the future security of Yemen.
“When I see how a country like Somalia has collapsed, I worry that something similar could happen to Yemen. There’s a great deal at stake in building a new Yemen. It’s not a question of us personally wanting to have more money; we just want to live in peace in a safe country where we can educate ourselves, earn a living and create a secure future for our children. I want to be a part of creating positive change, and perhaps women can bring a fresh perspective to the process of creating a new society,” concludes Bilqis Abu-Osba.