Half the WorldGender equality in Yemen: Women and political participation [Archives:2005/863/Culture]

July 28 2005

By Women's National Committee
Despite considerable progress in the democratic system since Yemen's Unification in 1990, women's political participation continues to remain low. Of the total 7251 representatives in the Parliament and local councils only 38 are women. Women's representation overall comprises only 0.5% in the elected institutions. Gender disparities in women's representation also persists in the government with only 16,200 women and legal institutions with female judges numbering 32. Political participation is fundamental to the process of change and transformation. However, both political parties and civil society organizations instrumental in enhancing women's participation in public spaces and decision-making are governed by traditional political structures and attitudes towards women's participation in political process. We look at some of the issues related to women's participation and underlying causes leading to poor performance in the following section.

Women Candidates in the Parliamentary Elections

Of the total 41 candidates that stood for elections in 1993 of whom 24 where independent only two were able to win a seat in parliament. Traditional attitudes towards women prevent their being able to make headway in democratic political system which continue to perpetuate attitudes of the public-private divide. Women's participation in public office and in decision-making are perceived as not in keeping with their gender roles and responsibilities. Political parties prefer to nominate male candidates rather than women candidates. In 1993, only 17 women were backed by political parties compared to 1998 men who garnered support. In the next elections, instead of women's political participation increasing with greater exposure and experience, there was a decline in women candidates with only 8 women being nominated by political parties and another 9 competing as independent. In 2003, there was a further reduction in women candidates with only eleven women competing, five from political parties and six independent candidates compared to 1396 male candidates. Women appear to have lost faith or interest in the democratic process.

Improvement of women's status and women's political participation is a serious concern with the government. In keeping with this objective two women were nominated to the Shura Council in 2001 out of a total of 111 members. Admittedly, the representation of women is miniscule given the total, but a significant step towards increasing spaces for women's representation in key decision-making bodies. In addition the appointment of a woman Minister of State of Human Rights has meant at least one woman in Parliament of Cabinet rank. Despite these developments if women's participation in political process are to increase in the forthcoming years it would require strong measures from the government to ensure that women are fully involved in participating decisions about their future.

In contrast, women's participation in voting has increased over the years. While only 15% of women registered to vote in the first elections in 1993 this number has increased subsequently to cover 37% in 1997 and more recently 42% women voters in 2003. Inspite of this increase in women voters over the years, a large number of women do not have the opportunity to exercise their entitlement.

There are several reasons for women women's low participation in political process. Social norms and practices prevent women from participating fully in decision-making especially in public spaces. Political parties themselves are divided over the issue of women's right to decision-making on the grounds that women should not have authority over men. High levels of illiteracy and lack of awareness on political process also deter women from claiming their fundamental right to vote. Sharp differences between the major political parties on the issue also deter women from wanting to participate. In the few cases when women overcome these barriers, they are confronted by the reality of male candidates having greater mobility and access to shaping public opinion. Social customs such as qat chewing facilitate male political participation and constrain women. As per the election law, candidates require at least 323 supporters to back them before their candidature to compete in the elections can be accepted. This is a difficult proposition for male candidates themselves and even harder for women candidates to fulfill given prevailing social cultural norms.

Unless proactive steps are taken by the state to redeem the situation, women will continue to remain the invisible half of the population. If women are to champion their interests and fight for their rights, the government would have to take strong measures in terms of affirmative action and go beyond tokenism to reflect gender equality in its political process.

Women and Law

The Constitution of the Republic of Yemen promulgated in 1994 recognises equality between men and women before the law and is enshrined in Article 40 which states 'All citizens are equal in general rights and obligations' before the law. In addition to the equality provision Yemen is also a signatory of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) and signed the Optional Protocol last year. Despite these commitments women in Yemen still experience inequalities both in terms of access to law as well as inconsistencies in the interpretation of the equality principle. Some examples of these are discussed in the following section.


Although the Constitution ensures nationality at birth without discrimination based on gender and is consistent with the provisions as per the CEDAW agreement, it is problematic in the cases of Yemeni women married to a foreigner. Citizenship at birth is determined by the nationality of the father, and by this rule children of Yemeni women and foreign father's are not granted Yemeni citizenship. This is not consistent with the equality provision in the constitution. Amendments have been made to citizenship rights to entitle children of Yemeni parents to choose citizenship on attainment of adulthood immaterial of gender of parent. On the other hand minors are automatically included in their father's passport. Women who are estranged or divorced from their husbands face difficulty as a result of this practice. Further, although technically the constitution endorses principle of equality, women are not recognized as autonomous adult individuals. Single women who wish to apply for a passport have to obtain the permission of their guardian namely their father or brother, while married women have to obtain permission from their husbands if they wish to obtain a passport.

Right to Reside

Similar inequalities persist in granting of residence permits to spouses of Yemeni women. While foreign wives of Yemeni men are automatically granted right to remain and reside in Yemen for a period of five years, husbands of Yemeni women are given only a two year residence permit. As per the equality provision the difference in duration is inconsistent and should be five years for both parties regardless of gender.


As per the guardianship rules, mother's are granted automatic guardianship in the event of divorce of their children. Sons may remain under the care of their mother's until the age of 9years and daughters until the age of 12years. At the end of this period a child is allowed the choice to decide which parent he or she wishes to remain with. However women's groups have been lobbying to extend the age of guardianship upto 15years for both sexes so that the child attains a level of maturity before making a decision on who she/he wishes to have as legal guardian.


Previously, if a man was found guilty of killing a woman to defend his honor he would have to pay only half the compensation of that which is paid for the death of a man. However effective lobbying from women's groups resulted in this inequality being revoked. As per the amendment the payment or compensation for the death of the individual is the same irrespective of the gender of the victim in question. Despite this small victory, the fact remains that men who kill female members of their family (either wives, sisters, mothers, aunts etc.) on the grounds of finding them guilty of adultery very often go unpunished. These cultural norms and practices in effect make men custodian of women, and any acts on the part of the women that is seen as a violation of this implicit code is met with retribution.

Lobbying by women's groups have met with some measure of success in being able to ensure that registration of children at birth is extended to mother's a male entitlement. To facilitate employment opportunities for women with small children the labor law was amended. As per this provision, day care provisions would have to be made by employers whose institutions employ more than 50% women employees. Also, treatment of pregnant women prisoners also came under review leading to a ban on harsh treatment or deprivation of food which may endanger both the health of the woman and the child.

Other issues that women's groups have strongly been advocating for is ban on female genital mutilation which continues to be practiced in some communities. Female genital mutilation is often performed on little girls under unsanitary conditions and has long lasting health consequences as well as causing irrevocable damage to the female genital organs. Women's groups have long been advocating for a legal ban on FGM except those performed expressly for medical purposes. Violation of this ban it is recommended should be met with punitive measures to deter its continuation.