Betraying Beijing [Archives:2005/836/Culture]

April 25 2005

By Nisha
For the Yemen Times

Combating poverty, marginalization and violence against women is both a social and economic imperative at all levels. Women's rights cannot be protected and their position improved unless their current role and the need for its transformation receives equal recognition in the public sphere. The recognition will not come as long as women continue to be segregated in the private sphere and their economic contributions remain unseen, unacknowledged and unpaid. Statistics from across the world show that efforts undertaken to strengthen the economic capacity of women and promote their integration with the economy has immediate effects on the overall development of a country. BPFA recognized that the feminization of poverty is linked to a lack of opportunities and economic autonomy and a lack of access to education, services and economic resources. It also recognized that these economic disadvantages result in poor status of women and support a gender based exploitative and violent practices. Though the government of Yemen has drawn a National Women's Employment Strategy (2001-2011) and also constituted the Directorate General for Working Women in 1998, very little change has taken place in reality. Women's labour force participation rate is low at 21.8% and two-thirds of women remain segregated in unpaid work, with most women working as unpaid family workers in rural areas. According to UNDP, ILO and Ministry of Social Affairs' Labour Force Survey, 1999, only 13.8% of women are engaged in paid work. and 24% are self-employed. Issues of land ownership and other assets, gender, wage gap, absence of supportive credit and technical support mechanisms for women's enterprises are other weak areas in Yemeni women's engagement with economy.

Yemeni women are far from power and decision-making. With a woman minister and a deputy minister, two women consultants to the President's office and three to the Cabinet, two women in Shura Council, and four women deputy assistants, women's representation at the highest levels of national decision-making has definitely improved but nowhere near being fair. If the Yemen government is to meet its obligation to BPFA and ensure justice to both women and men, it must take immediate action to share power with women and put them in decision-making positions as a prerequisite. Without women's access, their capacity building in public participation and active presence in the decision-making arena, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved.

Institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women are essential if women are to have access to participation in power and decision-making. Speaking at the Beijing meeting at New York, the Chairperson of the Women's National Committee lauded the progress Yemeni women have made in the 10 years since the Beijing Conference but also pointed out that significant challenges remain to be addressed. Yemen is, indeed, the first country in the Arab region where women have equal rights to vote, they can be elected to the parliament, be appointed minister or hold any administrative and diplomatic posts. But these achievements remain ad hoc in the absence of their institutionalization and concrete goal achievement plans. The establishment of the Women's national Committee was a step towards institutionalization. But this step was taken in 1994 as part of preparation for the Beijing Conference. The Yemeni Government must continue to demonstrate its commitment to BPFA by adopting strategies that would transform gender equality from a lofty goal to a reality.

BPFA expects the states to provide an enabling environment for women to enjoy full and equal human rights and fundamental. It implies that the states have to not only protect women's human rights when it is being violated, but have to work actively to promote these rights. Women in Yemen, as discussed so far, continue to face discrimination in many areas including personal status law. For example, only a male guardian could contract marriage for women. The Women's National Committee and national and international NGOs have been advocating for systematic promotion and protection of women's human rights. With regard to the personal status law, in October 2001, the Women's national Committee referred an amendment to the parliament through the cabinet. The amendment envisages adopting 18 years as the legal minimum age at marriage for women and men. However, until date, this amendment or any separate legislation has not been passed. Similarly, there is also a lack of effective safeguards to protect women from forced and polygamous marriages.

Often perceptions regarding women, including concern for their human rights, could be measured by images seen through media. Media is such a powerful tool for the construction of women's images. Its capacity to orient collective representations of and attitudes toward women is undoubted. It is important, therefore, that not only journalists are sensitized and made aware of their role in transformation of women's role; rather, women are given access to decision-making in media. A look at Yemeni media in general is sufficient to see the extent of prejudices and stereotypes that underestimate women are perpetuated by it. Media is a critical tool of dissemination of information and ideas. It could play a significant contribution to the advancement of women's rights in Yemen. In order to meet its obligations to BPFA, it expected from the government in Yemen that it would encourage media to depict the diversity of women's lives and their contributions to society and create opportunities for women to access information technology. Yemen has two newspapers devoted exclusively to women's issues and headed by women. One mainstream English newspaper which is now headed by a woman editor and four quarterly women's magazines, which are headed by women. These are progressive changes, which need to be supported through interventions that would help women acquire skills and knowledge, which would improve their effectiveness in media.

Women in Yemen, like most part of the world, are responsible for meeting family's daily subsistence requirements. Given Yemen's harsh terrain, climatic conditions and scarce natural resources like water and vegetation, women's tasks are equally difficult to carry out. Logically, if women are the ones who are most dependent on the natural resources to meet their traditional role, women's leadership, participation in the formulation, planning and execution of environmental should be of critical importance. But this is not the case in Yemen. In general, Yemen's development approach does not incorporate sustainable livelihood views towards natural resources. The concept of environment management and sustainable livelihoods is yet to take roots in Yemen. At present, there are no measures available to assess the impact of environmental pollutants, mining and changes in subsistence farming patterns on women. In general, there is paucity of interventions aimed at promoting and protecting the environmental aspects of human health and hardly any involvement of women in whatever is going on vis-a-vis environment.

Yemen has taken certain steps to improve rights of girls. School enrolment of girls has improved from 49.8% in 2000 to 56.45% in 2003. However, this success is not reflected in retention and educational completion rates. But on the whole, girls are a marginalized lot in the country. Yemen is still in the stage of transition from a system, which viewed women in a particular light and bestowed adulthood on girls as soon as they reached the age of puberty to a society, which views girls as entitled to same human treatment and opportunities as boys. Certain traditional practices and customs like early marriage, stereotypical perception of gender roles and concerns related to morality continue to result in systematic exclusion of girls from education, training, health care and enjoyment of their childhood. All these eventually affect a girl's capacity to take up paid employment, participate in public life and lead a healthy empowered life. The burden of adulthood is an invisible form of discrimination and violence that girls face. It is the responsibility of the state to promote an environment in which girls have equal access and support to benefit from all available and future opportunities and grow to their full potential.

It is not surprising that the gender gap in Yemen is one of the widest in the world, with Yemen ranked 131st out of 146 countries. BPFA obliges states to intervene in both private and public spheres to protect and promote women's human rights. By identifying 12 critical areas, it also provides a framework to the states to focus their intervention. Intervention in private arena demands that the state will have to generate political will to address discriminatory attitudes and socio-cultural practices, lopsided division of labour between women and men within the family and unequal power relations between women and men. These form the root of gender inequality in the public sphere. It is not possible to meet state obligations under BPFA by ignoring either sphere.