From the ground up: How Yemen’s women and girls survive

Soman Moodley Conflict, Gender, Humanitarian, Protection, Women's Economic Empowerment

This blog introduces a study carried out by Oxfam, CARE and GenCap, to better understand how women, men, girls and boys survive in Yemen, a country torn apart by conflict.

As Dubai and Saudi Arabia vie with each other to build the world’s tallest tower at an estimated cost of over $1 billion, Yemeni women and girls struggle to survive amidst continued warfare in their search for the basic necessities of life, such as food, water, shelter, dignity and safety. The war has killed or injured over 10,000 civilians, destroyed critical infrastructure and shattered the economy, resulting in $7 billion of damage and over $12 billion in economic losses.

Despite the glitz and glamour of much of the Gulf, Yemen remains poor with access into and out of the country severely restricted. Even before the airstrikes and shells starting raining down on people, it was one of the least understood countries in the region. It is seen by many as a hive of extremist violence but it is also one of the world’s worst places to survive as a woman.

Oxfam spoke with Aqilah Mohammed, who lives with her husband and five children in the Wadi Khamer area of Amran. They were forced to flee their home in the capital Sana’a due to the continued conflict. Aqilah said, “My children need specialist care but my husband can’t find work to meet our needs. The situation worsens day by day as the war continues.”

Transformative change to pre-existing gender relations is often driven by new economic realities in conflict

To better understand what it is to survive as women, men, girls and boys in a country torn apart by conflict, Oxfam in conjunction and CARE and GenCap, engaged in a study entitled ‘From the ground up’ to better understand the impact of conflict on gender relations in Yemen. Our team spoke with people in areas with the most severe needs including Aden, Taiz, Hajjah and Abyan governorates. The study engaged over 500 households in both rural and urban settings at a time when 2.7 million people were forced from their homes in search of safety.

Now over 3.1 million people have been forced to flee the continued airstrikes and ground fighting. Many have been taken in by relatives or friends, with additional stress placed on already impoverished households. Some are not as fortunate and are forced to live out in the open in makeshift shelters, particularly in Hajjah and Taiz.

The burden of displacement often rests on women’s shoulders. Estimates suggest that almost one in three households is headed by a woman in areas of mass displacement. Our research team spoke with women who have lost everything and who have no means by which to provide for their children. They often have little else but a thin sheet of plastic to protect themselves and their families from the searing heat, wind and rain. They explained that their only meal of the day is cooked on a fire of burning plastic because of the lack of firewood, making the smell and taste of what little food they have unbearable.

When women leave such camps in search of opportunities to provide for their children they often confront the threat of abuse or exploitation. Women spoke of their fear that the war would continue and how they and their families would survive. Similarly men conveyed their fear of arrest or detention by armed groups in their search for work opportunities.

Conflict is changing many social norms with women controlling the use of limited resources

Women are traditionally marginalized from the workforce in Yemen. Many cultural and religious norms disempower women from equality under the law and in other spheres of society. The role that women have and continue to play in livelihood opportunities has been changed as a result of the current conflict.

Transformative change to pre-existing gender relations is often driven by new economic realities in conflict, which force women to take up new responsibilities. Driven by necessity, women face a series of barriers to their effective participation in the workforce including, exclusion, lack of mobility and a lack of positive self-perception.

Our team spoke with Suad, a 24 year-old woman who fled the violence in her home district. When fighting subsided they returned home but her father was injured by a shell in Dhobab district and an armed group took his fishing boat, and only source of livelihood, away. Suad was once again forced to flee, this time with her injured father whom she now had to protect and provide for. With little else other than the clothes on her back and a small amount of money she quickly learnt skills from a family member to make incense and perfume. As she said, “someone needed to work and cover the daily expenses of our family, their only hope was me.” Borrowing 5000 yemeni riyal (approx. $20) from a neighbour, Suad started to make these products and sold them in the local area. She started earning the family’s much needed income. Suad said “it was like the first step in a thousand mile journey, our life became much better than before.”

Women like Suad should be supported through financial management and business skills training which requires adequate technical support, market linkages and sustained resourcing. Opportunities exist to support meaningful work options for women that develop self-reliance amidst continued conflict and move beyond traditional gender-stereotyped activities.

Our study found that the conflict is changing many social norms with women increasingly controlling the use of limited household resources, in addition to seeking out and engaging in livelihood opportunities. The powerlessness of unemployment often drives domestic conflict but, as our research found, it also creates a new found appreciation of the work done by women to maintain the household. Due to continued concerns over safety, men often assume roles traditionally done by women such as collecting water. In doing so, they have begun to understand the full burden that women must bear amidst poverty, airstrikes and ground fighting.

It is unclear who will be win the race in the Gulf to build the world’s tallest building, but one thing is clear, the regional and international community must support the efforts of Yemeni women to build a better future for themselves and their families. From the ground up.

Related publications