By Brittany Lambert, Women’s Rights Policy Specialist, Oxfam Canada (@BrittanyLam) and Christine Martin, Humanitarian Campaigns & Outreach Officer (@AskHerChristine)
What is our Women, Peace and Security advice to the incoming government? To ensure policy coherence across all foreign policy actions. Canada’s bold commitments to Women, Peace and Security hold tremendous potential. But this potential will go unrealized if Canada simultaneously fuels wars that harm women.
Case in point: Canada’s ongoing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a country engaged in a devastating war on neighboring Yemen. As the arms industry profits, women in Yemen are paying the price.
Take Soud, for example, who has lost four young children in the war. Her two young daughters (3 and 4 years old) were killed by missiles as they played outside. The attack also left Soud with a physical disability, making it difficult to care for her remaining children. As if such heartbreak was not enough, she later lost her two sons (5 and 6 years old) when they contracted the measles and she was unable to afford a doctor’s care and medicine.
Or take Nada, a single mother of four, who fled with her children when armed conflict gripped her city. They now sleep in the hallway of a school-turned-shelter, on a mattress they all share. She shoulders the weight of caring and providing for her family alone. She articulates what so many women in Yemen feel: “We have nothing; we are not part of this. Yet we bear the burden of this war”
The situation in Yemen is nothing short of horrifying. Violence, rising food prices, the destruction of infrastructure, and a lack of basic services makes daily survival a painful struggle for millions of Yemenis. To date, the war has claimed over 17,000 civilian casualties, forced over 3 million people from their homes, and made 80% of the population reliant on humanitarian aid. It is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis – ever.
And, tragically, there’s no end in sight. Four and a half years since the start of the conflict, violence continues to wreck the country with indiscriminate airstrikes, shelling, and landmines attacks. All fighting parties, including the Saudi-led coalition, are reportedly violating international humanitarian law (IHL) – hitting civilians through attacks on hospitals, marketplaces and schools. The effects of the war in Yemen are devastating, and there is no doubt that weapons are one of the main causes.
The paradox of weapon sales and feminist foreign policy
Canada has a range of policies that, together, outline a feminist approach to foreign policy. The National Action Plan on WPS, the Feminist International Assistance Policy, Canada’s Inclusive Approach to Trade, Canada’s Defense Policy, and Canada’s policy on Gender Equality in Humanitarian Action are but a few examples.
Arms exports undermine a feminist agenda in several ways. Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) lays the groundwork for conflict prevention by prioritizing gender equality. This is a smart approach since evidence shows a strong link between gender equality and peace. Indeed, gender equality is a better predictor of peacefulness than a country’s level of democracy, level of wealth or its ethnoreligious makeup. But the FIAP’s preventative efforts won’t be effective if Canada simultaneously sells weapons that fuel wars and harm women.
Wars have detrimental impacts on social and economic development, and gender equality. It is not surprising, then, that the war in Yemen has deepened gender inequality, reversing women’s fragile gains in education and the workforce. It is inefficient for Canada to focus its international assistance spending on women’s rights in Yemen, while selling weapons that result in the suppression of their rights.
Furthermore, there are strong links between unregulated weapon sales and gender-based violence (GBV). For women, the risk of GBV increases with armed conflict due to displacement, the breakdown of social structures, and a collapse of the rule of law. Where weapons are poorly regulated, widely available, and misused, there is almost always an upsurge in gender-based violence. This is certainly the case in Yemen, where GBV has risen by 63% since the conflict broke out in 2015.
Gender and the Arms Trade Treaty
Just last week, Canada formally joined the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) – an international effort to regulate the flow of weapons to countries where they could be used to perpetrate war crimes, genocide and other grave violations of international law.
The ATT even includes a specific article (7.4) requiring countries to consider the risk of arms “being used to commit or facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children.” This is the first legally binding global instrument to recognize and create obligations around the connection between arms transfers and GBV. In this sense, the ATT makes a critical contribution to global efforts to address GBV.
While joining the ATT is an important milestone for Canada, it will regrettably not affect pre-existing arms deals like the one with Saudi Arabia.
Yet, if Canadian arms transfers to Saudi Arabia were assessed according to ATT criteria, the assessment would almost certainly conclude that serious risks exist.
The risk assessment should arguably go beyond examining attacks on women (which in themselves constitute violations of IHL) and look at the wider gendered impact of the use of weapons in Yemen. This is essential to reducing humanitarian harm in conflict, which the ATT was designed to do.
The wider gendered impacts of the armed conflict in Yemen are many; and are obvious in the earlier stories of Soud, Nada, and countless other Yemeni women:
- Women and children are more likely to become internally displaced;
- Women who are injured by blasts can miscarry, or become unable to care for their children due to disability;
- Destruction of infrastructure means women have to walk further to get water – increasing the risk of GBV. It also means they cannot access vital healthcare services, including pre/post-natal services and medical care for their children;
- Women who are not accompanied by a male relative have difficulties accessing aid;
- 1.1 million pregnant and lactating women are acutely malnourished, leading to high rates of maternal and infant mortality.
The way forward: Linking the Arms Control, Women, Peace and Security (WPS), and Sustainable Development Agendas
It is incoherent for Canada to proceed with weapon sales to Saudi Arabia, especially now that Canada has joined the ATT. The next government of Canada must abide by the spirit of the ATT and stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Canada should write compliance with the ATT GBV commitments into its WPS National Action Plan, with departmental WPS focal points contributing to the development of risk assessment processes for Article 7.4 of the Treaty.
Beyond this, it is important to tackle other drivers of the conflict in Yemen, including the fact that the current political process does not address Yemeni civilians’ priorities, concerns, and grievances. While women-led organizations and youth groups continue to mobilize for sustainable peace and an inclusive political process, their voices remain largely marginalized. Canada should push for an inclusive peace process, and support the meaningful participation of Yemeni women in the process. Evidence shows that when civil society groups – including women’s organizations – participate in peace agreements, they are 64% less likely to fail.
Canada should provide long-term support for the Yemeni women’s movement, to strengthen their advocacy and their ability to help shape their country’s future. We know that countries where women are empowered are vastly more secure and less likely to relapse into violent conflict. Nowhere is this more crucial than in Yemen, where the war has already pushed development back by 21 years, and where recovery will take decades.
Policy coherence across all of Canada’s foreign policy areas is the key to protecting women’s rights where they are furthest behind, in Yemen. What could be more important, and more feminist, than that?
Please note that the views in these blog posts are those of the author and may not represent the views of all members of the WPSN-C.