#16DaysofActivism: Resilience in displacement: Yemeni women demonstrate leadership in the fight against COVID-19

By Adesola Anyaegbu, a Graduate Student at the School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa

The Coronavirus has been described as one the deadliest global pandemics. However, the UN insists that women around the world are experiencing a double pandemic. Gender-based violence is a shadow pandemic plaguing the lives of women around the world. For women who live in conflict-affected areas, in addition to existing precarious realities, COVID-19 is another compounding threat. 

Water Crisis and Reproductive Health

The war in Yemen has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Oxfam-Canada estimates that about 80 per cent of people in Yemen are in need of humanitarian assistance, and women make up about half of this population. The United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) is the sole provider of life-saving reproductive health medicines in Yemen. 140 out of 180 of UNFPA facilities in Yemen have closed, as a result of reduced funding by the UNFPA – these facilities include sexual and maternal health services. In addition to war and conflict in the region, Yemen also faces a water scarcity crisis. Most residential areas in Yemen do not have access to clean drinking water, since water sanitation services have been destroyed due to the war. This has led to a series of cholera outbreaks in the region since 2016, with the most recent in October 2019. Clean and safe water is essential to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Since many in Yemen do not have access to clean water, this coupled with other preexisting health factors, exacerbates the risk of contracting and spreading the virus. 

Response to the Shadow Pandemic in Yemen

In Yemen, one of the ways this shadow pandemic has manifested is in increased rates of child marriage. As a result of economic deprivation, poorer families rely on dowry systems. These allow families to receive money, which serves as a means to ease existing financial burdens. Stay-at-home orders have also trapped women and girls in place with their abusers, leading to an increase in domestic violence. Nevertheless, Yemeni women have been relentless in their fight against these crises. Women in Yemen have remained at the frontlines of peacebuilding. With many men injured or killed as a result of the war, women have had to take on leadership roles within their communities.  Women-led organizations, such as the Yemeni Women’s Union (YWU), Women’s Solidarity Network, and Food4Humanity, have engaged community members and empowered women and girls in various ways to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. In addition to enabling women to be active leaders, the Women’s Solidarity Union is one of the organizations actively building peace and security in the region. In April 2020, the organization called for a ceasefire, the release of political prisoners, and an end to military operations in Yemen. The YWU has branches around the country, which trains women and girls on how to make their own masks and hand sanitizer. This not only strengthens women’s economic independence, but also creates opportunities for community organizing. The YWU also provides tele-counselling services and legal aid for women that may be experiencing violence in their homes. This, of course, creates a barrier for women who do not own cell phones or have access to one, another challenge further exasperated by the COVID-19 pandemic: the gender digital divide. Food4Humanity Foundation has also called for a ceasefire and created  a petition, calling on the  UN to take immediate action to address food, health and water sanitation systems. 

Need for International Funding

Despite Canada’s commitments to address global issues, the government’s aid response to the pandemic stands to be improved. The government has pledged more funding for  humanitarian aid, but still more is needed. This especially, since the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has suspended most funding directed at humanitarian projects. This loss of funding amidst a global health crisis, displays a necropolitical attitude towards the survival of racialized lives. Yemeni lives are not disposable, and should not be treated as mere casualties of this pandemic.

The U.S. and Canada play significant roles in escalating the conflict in Yemen, both countries are involved in arms trade with Saudi Arabia, one of the conflicting parties in Yemen. Grassroots organizations as mentioned above, are in the position to benefit from global foreign public investments. In order to ensure that Yemeni women continue to build resilience, greater considerations for aid and from the international community is required. 


Please note that the views in blog posts are those of the author and may not represent the views of all members of the WPSN-C.

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