"My name is Sally—which means the person who is comfortable and has a good feeling—but I have never seen a comfortable or a good day in my life." This is how the girl standing in the middle of the asphalt road leading to a number of villages in Mawiyah district in Taiz governorate answered me when I asked her about her name while she was selling mineral water bottles to passers-by. I later learned from her that she and her family had been displaced to Mawiyah district after they lost their house, which her deceased father had left for them, due to the outbreak of war in early 2015. Thus, their relatives provided them with a small room to live in, and then the villagers helped them by providing water and food. Therefore, Sally, as she says, felt responsible for her family's miserable situation. So the nineteen-year-old girl decided to look for work. She went to the village shop, and there she pawned her phone to take two cartons of mineral water. She carried them on her head to the asphalt road and started selling them. Sally says: "I was almost very happy and over the moon, as I sold the entire quantity before noon and went to get my phone back and pay the price of the water to the seller, who later cooperated with me and started selling it to me on credit. Furthermore, I also worked hard to reassure my mother, who was disapproving of my work because of her fear for me. However, her fear faded somewhat later, after I was harassed by a group of young men who were deliberately sitting across from my workplace every morning and exchanging comments about me. Consequently, after changing my place twice to avoid them, I—at the third time—had to inform the sheikh of the area, who stood beside me and prevented them from sitting there and informed me that I was under his protection."
Sally represents an example for a large number of women in Yemen, whose social roles have changed due to the war. In a country where international reports say that the number of displaced people has exceeded four million , the percentage of women and children among them reaches 77% . Besides, the men in many Yemeni cities have lost their jobs in the private sector, while, on the other side, the regular payment of salaries to public sector employees has stopped since 2018 , and others have joined the war fronts. This has prompted women to bear additional burdens in order to preserve the cohesion of their families. Asmaa says: "My husband was working as a financial manager in a private company, and our living situation was good, but we were looking for a private project for fear of the fluctuations of the economic situation." Subsequently, indeed, I sold all my gold while my husband took out a loan from his work, and then we opened a shop. But then, the lack of demand in the market prompted us to close it."
She adds: "Since 2014, my husband and I have opened seven projects; six of them failed, and the last of which was a large supermarket that we opened in a newly constructed area. But the moment we started working in it, my husband was dismissed from his job for reasons related to the deteriorating economic situation. So he became depressed and remained locked up at home for almost two years. At that time, I decided to stand next to him, and indeed, I started communicating with suppliers and customers and supervising the employees and workers in the supermarket because it has become our only source of sustenance. Then I succeeded in convincing him to look for another job outside Yemen. Today, as a consequence, my husband started working as an accountant in one of the major companies in Saudi Arabia, and here I am now offering our project for sale, to join him there as he requested."
Despite the gloomy picture that presents the situation of women and girls in Yemen as affected by the war, but the war has another face that prompted the Yemeni society to voluntarily accept new social roles for women in Yemen, which it would not have accepted without the circumstances produced by the war, which showed the man's need for her to work, side by side with him, as a decision-maker and not just as an executor.
Since the start of the war in Yemen, the international reports have focused on the situation of women as affected by the war. The Global Gender Gap Index, issued by the World Economic Forum, indicates that Yemen ranks 155th out of 165 countries in the Gender Gap Index. The international reports also indicate an increase in rates of gender-based violence with the increasing frequency of conflict, from 36% in 2016 to 66% in 2017 , while the general participation rate of women in senior administrative leadership is 4.1%, with low participation in the field of peacebuilding at the local and national levels.
However, despite the gloomy picture that shows the situation of women and girls in Yemen as affected by the war, the war has another face that prompted the Yemeni society to voluntarily accept new social roles for women in Yemen, which it would not have accepted without the circumstances produced by the war, and which showed the man's need for her to work side by side with him as a decision-maker and not just as an executor. Thus, women supported their families, endured many economic and social decisions in the face of the consequences of the war, and also occupied jobs that had not previously been widely accepted by society. So, women worked as waitresses in restaurants and sellers of popular foods in public markets. They opened private projects and various stores for sewing clothes, beauty, photography, and catering for events and weddings. In addition to opening qualitative projects such as cafes, restaurants, and mobile phone repair shops, some of which are mixed and not only for women, Indeed, during the war period, a woman won for the first time in Yemen a tender for paving a road in the Jabal Habashi district in Taiz governorate, thus breaking the men's monopoly in the field of contracting. Through my work with local communities, I am almost certain that at least one out of every five families in Yemen is headed by a woman. Although many areas of women's work during the war period were existed before the war, but also women's work spread and achieved wide societal acceptance during the war. Further, the women’s tendency to work on small projects has become remarkably noticeable, and this may be due to the high illiteracy rate among women in Yemen, which amounts to 65%, according to the ESCWA report 2010. Besides, the deteriorating conditions of the Yemeni economy do not allow for more private or public sector jobs. In addition, women in Yemen have led the front lines of humanitarian action. The reports indicate that the number of women workers and employees within humanitarian work crews is much higher than that of men in Yemen. This is because the work of these crews is in more direct contact with women in local communities than with men, as a result of their absence from the home for the aforementioned reasons or because women are more able to determine the requirements and priorities of daily life, which also makes women’s work in this field acceptable and enjoys wide community support.
The importance of highlighting the changing social roles of women during the war in Yemen lies in the development of effective mechanisms and strategies for the work of the local and international civil society organizations aimed at a more effective women's partnership.
On the other hand, the societal culture in Yemen considers the family to be the first protection system. So, the care of male relatives for women, such as the father, husband, brother, and others, is a family and community protection system that preserves women and contributes to defending them from any dangers in a fragile State that is subject to tribal and customary rules more than to the law. Accordingly, this culture can be a justification for changing the roles of Yemeni women during the war, with the approval and even the support of their families. Most, if not all, of these roles have changed within the framework of small local communities such as villages, shops, neighborhoods, and districts. This confirms that Yemeni society accepts different roles for women, but under a protection system that it trusts and is in line with its customs and traditions. In addition to the fact that women in small local communities had an active presence at the level of their families or communities before the war, Therefore, societal acceptance of their roles continued after the war, even if those roles changed.
The importance of highlighting the changing social roles of women during the war phase in Yemen lies in the development of effective mechanisms and strategies for the work of local and international civil society organizations aimed at a more effective women's partnership. Moreover, women's involvement and rights programs, in particular, are sensitive programs, because they are linked to many religious concepts and rooted in the collective consciousness as programs that affect well-established customs and traditions, and also because they are programs that may affect the social structures of any society in the long term and may even lead to counterproductive results if they are not sensitive to societal culture. Consequently, this pushing society to further deprive the women and girls of their rights, clinging to societal customs and traditions that affect their integration into life in general. Therefore, I believe that the approach of extracting laws to enforce women's rights in a society like Yemen—apart from the approach of building from the inside and raising community awareness—may increase the gap between local communities and civil society organizations, lose the confidence of those communities in civil society in general, and fuel cases of unconscious hostility between women and men. This leads to successive cycles of gender-based violence, because the treatments address the impacts of the problem, not its root causes. Furthermore, even those texts that guarantee somewhat acceptable rights for women in Yemeni law, remained for years only as formal laws that have been frozen by the force of societal custom, and for several years, the force of custom prevailed over the force of law. So, customs became valid, not laws.
Likewise, it is important that local and international organizations and all parties concerned with the active participation of women to stand up when the roles of women change during the prolonged war phase in order to accommodate the most feasible work strategies in Yemeni society, which contributes to achieving an effective partnership for women in the process of peacebuilding and development, with a wide community support that defends and encourages women to perform leadership roles at all levels. In my opinion, there are also a large number of women in Yemen who do not prefer to have their rights taken away from their families by law, except in moments of litigation, but rather prefer those rights, which, even if they defended them, remain rights protected by their male relatives with their consent and with their conscious will. In fact, the women in Yemen were blessed with the protection of their father, brother, and cousins before they realized and understood the meaning of laws and their protection. Perhaps there are no rights equivalent to the membership of an individual in his family and society. Thus, if any law gives women the right to take that membership away from them, perhaps they will be the first to stand against it. Therefore, gaining societal support for active women's roles is an indication of a positive change in society's awareness of women's partnerships and not just acceptance of this role, as people's attitudes usually influence their behavior. Accordingly, it is important to build on this change in awareness and invest it in activating participatory roles between men and women in the future.