The Women’s National CommitteeUp for debate [Archives:2005/803/Community]

January 3 2005

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

The Women's National Committee (WNC) in Yemen is seeing some positive signs while pushing for a law that would require women to fill decision-making positions in the government.

Rashida Al-Hamdani, Chairperson of the WNC, told The Yemen Times that Yemeni political parties and members of the Parliament are now discussing a possible quota system, which would assist women to enter the political arena by establishing a minimum of twenty to thirty per cent of the seats in the local councils and the parliament to be filled by women. The issue now up to debate could lead to a decision being made in the not-too-distant future.

“Everybody is now debating the quota system,” said Al-Hamdani. “It is a good sign that it is out there being discussed and being debated in the political parties and in the community. This was not happening a year ago, so it is a positive sign. Many agree in principle, but it has to be discussed on how to apply it.”

The WNC received a proposal from the ruling party, the GPC, which offered the political parties to recruit women to become candidates for elections. The WNC has doubts about the proposal because it would be a guideline parties should follow instead of a law that would be enforced.

“Agreements in the past have been only talk to support women entering into politics,” said Mohamed Moghram, Professor of Law at Sana'a University, who participated in researching a legal solution to bring women into the political arena. “Very little has been implemented in the past to include women in politics. We found that the quota system is the best remedy.”

Moghram also cited that a number of Scandinavian countries have been successful using a quota system implemented by law, and that such a law can be flexible to change once women have established their places in political positions.

Some people are not convinced that a law bringing women into the political arena is the best option, however.

“I support that women should be involved in politics, but this should come from the will of the political parties,” said a Yemeni government official. “It is also important that women become more active and prepared to take positions. If they are more active first, they will receive real representation.”

But many believe that a law giving women a minimum number of positions is essential, over the last decade, the growth of women receiving representation in the government has not only been stagnant but has actually been reversed.

“If you had asked me about the quota system 15 years ago, I would have said no we don't want or need a quota system because we were full of hope that for the first time women were able to vote and become government officials at the same time,” said Amat Al-Aleem Al-Soswa, Yemen's Minister of Human Rights. “But we have witnessed the last three elections in parliament and the first in local councils and the outcome has shown us what is happening in the development of political thinking and political parties dealing with women's issues are still far from their agenda.”

Two women took seats in the parliament in the 1993 and 1997 elections. After elections in 2003, there is now only one woman as a member of the parliament working with 300 male parliament members. In 1993, 41 women ran in the parliamentary elections, but in 2003 there were only 11. In local councils, women occupy only 37 positions out of the 6,000 across the country, which is less than one per cent.

The struggle for women to enter the political arena is spread across the Middle East. In a United Nations report released this year, it showed that Arab women in national parliaments in 2003 took up 5.8% of seats, a lower percentage than in sub-Saharan Africa (15.1%) and Asia (14.5%). The highest representation in parliament was in Syria (12%), the lowest being in Yemen (0.3%), while Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have parliaments made up entirely of men. Last October, Saudi Arabia decided to ban women from voting or running for office in the country's first municipal elections held next spring.

The first Democratic Forum for Arab Women held in Sana'a earlier this month called on Arab countries to give women more power in decision making. The final statement of the three-day conference, which brought together 70 women from 21 Arab nations, demanding that women be given at least 20 per cent of decision-making positions in governments. It also called for political reforms, multi-party political systems and the peaceful rotation of power.

“There is a chronic problem of absence of democracy in this culture,” said Amal Basha, Chairwoman of Yemen-based Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights (SAF), which teamed up with the government of the Netherlands to organize the women's forum. “One of the symptoms of this is the elimination of women from decision-making. Some countries are claiming that they are democratic. Democracy as we know it is the ruling of the people, and who are the people? They are men and women. So it means that just half of the people are the rulers who are making our destiny. Since we are talking about democracy, it means that everybody should be participating.”

Al-Hamdani said that in her discussions with political party representatives, a good number have shown support for the quota system.

“We encourage other parties to support the quota system,” said Mohamed Qahtan, Chairman of the Policy Department of the Islah party. “It would be better to have a law instead of parties promising to let women participate.”

There is also concern that if action is taken to bring more women into the political arena, it needs to be implemented well before the presidential and local council elections are carried out in April 2006.

“I am worried if we will be able to prepare the real mechanisms to make this a reality because we have a short period of time before next elections,” said Al-Soswa. “What we need is a real plan of action, but I'm afraid that the time is passing.”

Moghram said that it is important for the law of a quota system to pass in the first half of next year to have a full effect on the next elections. But he added, “When we started to promote getting women into government positions, there was very little reaction. Now many are voicing concerns for the rights of women which has started momentum that will get more women involved in decision making.”