It was a sad evening when Misk's obituary was held. Her aunt was shedding tears heavily as she described the deceased’s virtues at times and felt sorry for her two young children who would suffer from orphanhood after her at other times. In the midst of that painful conversation, I asked her aunt: “How did your deceased die?” She replied: “Drowned.” So, I was surprised and added: “But your village is mountainous, and there are no sources of groundwater.” She replied: “She drowned in the Siqaya.” This “Siqaya” is a large water tank built of stones and cement to collect rainwater and torrents through a side opening with cloth filters or metal wires. It has a large door that an adult can stand on its threshold, which leads into it through a series of cement stairs all the way to its bottom. In Yemeni villages, women usually take these stairs down whenever the water level in the Siqaya decreases to bring water from it via water hoses to the metal tanks on the rooftops of houses or through buckets for watering the livestock. However, as a result of the stagnation of water inside it for long periods that may exceed a year, algae grows on its walls and stairs. Therefore, because of slipping on these algae, a number of women—in the village of Misk and neighboring villages—meet their deaths on an almost annual basis, as I was told by the women present at the funeral.
For more than ten years, women and girls in Yemen have been suffering from intersecting factors of violence. Multiple forms of violence have emerged as a result of the war, in addition to violence directed against them due to the traditional structures and societal culture that weaken their participation and marginalize their roles. Further, the impacts of climate change add unconventional violence towards girls and women in Yemen as a consequence of their traditional roles, scarcity of resources, and weak response to disaster situations.
Climate Change and Women in Conflict Countries
Climate change refers to those long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns resulting from environmentally unfriendly human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas, which have increased since the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. The burning of fossil fuels results in the emission of gases that act as a cover that wraps around the Earth, trapping the sun's heat and raising temperatures abnormally, leading to severe drought and water scarcity, severe fires, rising sea levels and floods, melting polar ice, catastrophic storms, and the degradation of biodiversity.
Moreover, climate changes have impacts on humans in various ways, but they also have double negative impacts on women, especially in countries of conflict. The report of Reem Al-Salem, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against girls and women, addressed to the United Nations General Assembly last October, indicated that there are various factors that intersect with gender-based violence against girls and women, such as armed conflict, displacement, and scarcity of resources, and when these factors intersect with climate change, this leads to the feminization of violence.
In its report issued in 2020, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) indicated that there are 20 countries that are considered the most vulnerable to climate change and among the least prepared to mitigate or adapt to its impacts, 12 of which are suffering from armed conflicts, which are exhausting their strength and making confronting climate change very difficult. Moreover, the United Nations Environment Program estimates that 80% of those displaced due to climate change are women.
In Yemen, Climate Change is an Additional Burden on Women
The United Nations estimates that 4.6 million women in Yemen urgently need some form of assistance (food, water, shelter, or health) as a result of the armed conflict that has been ongoing for almost 9 years, amid repeated waves of displacement due to torrents or floods. The agriculture sector is one of the main sectors in which Yemeni women work, and also because of the conflict, the size of cultivated areas decreased by 38%, crops became scarce as a result of the scarcity of rain or different seasons, and also due to the economic collapse resulting from the war, 40% of families in Yemen lost their source of livelihood. Meanwhile, half of the population in Yemen was classified, according to UN reports, as poor. These reports indicate that women are more affected than men. The conflict also caused 36% of girls to drop out of education due to the destruction of schools or their work in providing water to their families from distant areas, especially after the depletion of the underground wells and water scarcity. Furthermore, Yemen suffers from a destroyed infrastructure due to the armed conflict, the resulting shortage of basic inputs, and the country’s limited ability to deal with natural disasters such as torrents, floods, and desert locust epidemics. Then, of course, many women in Yemen are unable to cope with these disasters due to societal culture. For example, customs and traditions forbid women in Yemen from playing sports, practicing running, or swimming, while the tasks of fetching water and firewood and herding livestock are social roles assigned to them, which has made the drowning of women and girls in Yemen turn into a social phenomenon in recent years. In a related context, a local newspaper article reported that nine girls and women died by drowning in a period not exceeding 35 days during the year 2022. According to the same newspaper article, 60 women and girls in Yemen died by drowning during the period between 2015 and 2022. Further, based on a study attributed to the World Health Organization, Yemen ranks 65th in the world in terms of drowning deaths.
Yemen is suffering from a suffocating fuel crisis, which has prompted women, even in major cities, to go out to collect firewood in order to prepare food for their families, but in ways that are not environmentally friendly due to their lack of experience, which threatens the trees surrounding the cities and increases the risks of air pollution.
On the other hand, a large number of Yemeni women own home-based projects or businesses. These projects are mostly environmentally friendly, but they are affected faster than official projects by climate change. Therefore, women's reliance on climate-sensitive projects that are quickly vulnerable to the climate, means that women's economic options are shrinking as the climate crisis intensifies. Likewise, the management of energy, water, sanitation, and food is one of the main women’s tasks in Yemen, so when their scarcity increases, women’s burdens increase.
“At the community level, a number of women in Yemen are leading the process of mitigating the impacts of climate change through youth or women's initiatives or projects of civil society organizations, such as public hygiene campaigns, city afforestation, calls for a green economy, raising environmental awareness, and managing or reducing disputes over access to natural resources.”
Efforts by women themselves in Yemen to confront and mitigate the impacts of climate change on their daily lives
Nearly two-thirds of Yemenis still rely on agriculture to meet their basic living needs. More than 75% of them live in rural areas, where women represent about 95% of the workforce there. Women in these rural communities play a pivotal role, not only limited to food security but also extending to land management and mitigating the impact of climate change on them.
Despite the social pressures placed on women, as well as shouldering all the domestic chores, Yemeni women have continued to work the land amid the climate change crisis. Further, women farmers try to make optimal use of water through surface irrigation, in addition to rationalizing water consumption and managing its collection methods. They contributed effectively to the rehabilitation of flood-affected lands and also worked to maintain food security by reducing food waste. In fact, most women in Yemen use leftover food to prepare the next meal or make new meals from those leftovers.
As a way to rationalize the use of water at home, women in Yemen are trying to reduce daily waste by directly supervising the use of water by family members, in addition to washing clothes with their hands most of the time, after the increasing scarcity of water and the rise in the prices of “water trucks”, as a result of the consumption of electric washing machines, which require double amounts of water, according to a number of women who told me during one of the programs I was implementing on improving livelihoods. Although all these efforts constitute an increasing burden on women in Yemen, women perform them out of their social responsibilities towards their families and communities. On the other hand, women in Yemen engage in a number of green behaviors spontaneously, such as garbage or waste management; either by reusing them as empty bottles for storage or recycling them to make antiques and gifts. A number of them also separate plastic waste from the rest of the garbage to be used by street plastic collectors who resell it. Moreover, women in Yemen usually plant trees on the rooftops or courtyards of houses by planting ornamental trees or some vegetables that they need on a daily basis, such as mint, hot peppers, tomatoes, and others, which makes their cultivation a green behavior, and the use of them is a green use, as there is no need to deliver them to the house via any means of transportation.
At the community level, a number of women in Yemen are leading the process of mitigating the impacts of climate change through youth or women's initiatives or projects of civil society organizations, such as public hygiene campaigns, city afforestation, calls for a green economy, raising environmental awareness, and managing or reducing disputes over access to natural resources, such as water, between local communities and others.
In my opinion, Yemeni women are environmentally friendly, as they make several individual efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change on themselves and their families, intentionally or sometimes unintentionally. However, these efforts alone are not enough to mitigate the impacts of these climate changes on women in Yemen. So, it is a matter of integrated efforts from several parties, such as the government, the private sector, local civil society organizations, international organizations, and then the women themselves, who have proven through the above their ability and desire to adapt and switch to a green life as much as possible. Consequently, it is important to focus on such efforts in building interventions that contribute to mitigating the impacts of climate change on Yemeni society in general and on women in particular, encouraging their individual initiatives in confronting the climate crisis, supporting the replication of their experiences, and activating their roles in enhancing environmental resilience. In addition to implementing programs to build the capabilities of women directly affected by the impacts of climate change, such as female farmers and displaced women, and then supporting female farmers with agricultural tools that contribute to the continuation of their work, helping them confront water scarcity, and training them on modern and environmentally friendly agricultural methods, as well as working to support and finance projects through which local products are produced, and likewise allowing women themselves to contribute to the use of renewable energy, such as ovens, washing machines, heaters that operate on solar energy, and to show them how to operate the multi-use household appliances. Further, training women on managing and separating household waste, green ways of disposal, and supporting home afforestation. All this is in light of joint national action plans for competent authorities, the private sector, and civil society organizations to move toward a green economy, raise environmental awareness among all members of society, and women in particular, and involve them effectively in creating solutions and initiatives to the problems and issues they face in environmentally friendly ways.