The drive to get women into politics [Archives:2004/779/Community]

October 7 2004

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

The Women's National Committee is out in full force to bring women into Yemen's political arena. The committee has proposed a quota system that if parliament passes to law, would ensure that women take up 30% of the seats in parliament, local councils and the Shoura council. It is now pushing for one million signatures to back their drive for women to be more active in both the government and the country's decision making.
Rashida Al-Hamdani, Chairperson of the Women's National Committee, said that she has received some positive feedback.
“I got some positive responses from parliamentary members that they will accept it,” said Al-Hamdani. “When we talked to the opposition recently, it was the turning point. They accepted the idea. If that happens, then there will be no need for one million signatures.”
Progress made to get women into politics has been far from successful in the last decade. In the elections of 1993 and 1997, two women took seats in parliament. Now after elections in 2003, there is only one woman serving as a member of parliament, she works with 300 male members of parliament. In 1993, 41 women ran to become parliament members, but last year there were only 11. In local councils, women take up 37 positions out of 6,000 across the country, which is less than one percent.
A number of women involved in working for women's rights and the development of the status of women in Yemen believe that more strategies need to be implemented for women to participate in Yemen's politics. Many say that a governmental decision to draw women into political positions would be a big boost, but they hold that more results could also come from a grassroots approach.
“The quota system is good, but it is important to develop from the bottom and work up from there,” said Ramzia Al-Eryani, Chairwoman of the Yemen Women's Union.
The Women's Union is concentrating on having women in their nationwide centers being involved in numerous services and making sure that they work in the areas they are from. The organization believes that this will build a reputation for women being active in areas and will give them a better chance of being elected in the future.
“We encourage women to serve the people in many areas so that people will see them to as being very good and select them in elections,” said Al-Eryani. “If the people have to choose from women they don't know, who haven't served them, and don't have a relationship with them, they will not be happy to vote for the women. Instead, we aim at people selecting a capable woman who has done social work, projects and helped the community.”
Al-Eryani added that the Women's Union is giving an extra effort to show the public that women are well suited for jobs in Yemeni politics. “The goal is to do more than a man because in our tradition people don't like a woman to be in parliament. But if they see her doing more than a man, they will vote for her,” said Al-Eryani.
Some believe that even though women as parliament members will be a plus, concentrating on women being involved in local councils will yield longer-term changes.
“The place for change is in the local councils,” said Raufa Al-Sharki, Chairperson of Cultural Development Project Planning Foundation. “With local councils in every place around the country, it is local governing that will bring changes.”
Al-Sharki also pointed out that if the quota system is implemented, “It will force councils to have a specific percentage of women. That is a way for women to learn how to do politics, which is an area where women were forbidden and were not allowed for centuries.”
Others emphasize the need for more women to be fully educated and to build on their qualifications to be politicians. The US State Department's recent report said that 67.5% of women in Yemen were illiterate in 2002. The World Bank has calculated that only 39% of school-age girls are enrolled in primary school to get a basic education.
The Ministry of Education, with the support of donor countries and The World Bank, has been building more classrooms and schools and recruiting more teachers to boost the enrollment of girls. But according to Najat Al-Fakih, Professor of Education at Sana'a University, there are forces working against the efforts to increase women's literacy. Although enrollment is moving up, many girls continue to drop out after basic education in rural areas due to early marriages. And Yemen's population growth rate, which is one of the highest in the world, is countering the action taken to get more girls to finish their education.
One thing that has been absent has been an overall women's movement. “The women's movement has not gone anywhere,” said Afrah Al-Ahmadi, Head of Health and Social Protection Unit at the Social Fund for Development.
Al-Ahmadi believes that the cause of the country lacking a women's movement comes from society in which women are taught “not to challenge the status quo.”
Others claim that organizations devoted to the progress of women have yet to develop a coordinated effort.
“Organizations for women have little coordination and are fragmented,” said Horia Ahmed, Deputy Chairperson of the Women's National Committee. “It is important for organizations to have a common goal and to distribute responsibilities as decision makers and those that implement those decisions.”
Many are worried that the quota system proposal will have a difficult time being passed by the parliament. One of the requirements might be a change to the country's constitution, which is far from likely. According to Al-Hamdani, the Women's Committee is trying to find a way for the proposal to be implemented without changing the constitution.
“It appears that the law would require amending the constitution, which is something we don't want,” said Al-Hamdani. “We'll try to hold a seminar with legal experts to see if it is possible not to amend the law and the constitution so that we can move it along quickly.”
Others believe that international pressure may have an influence on the quota system being installed. A representative of a women's organization said, “I think the government will pass the law because donor countries will push for it and the international community would like to see it happen.”
The representative also said, “What is important is that the push for women's rights in politics must be done as a group effort and achieve particular goals before the local council elections in 2006, and parliamentary elections in 2009.”