Coherent Canadian Feminist Foreign Policy Must Support Yemeni Women Peacebuilders

by Charlotte Côté and Aïcha Madi

Charlotte Côté is involved in the world of dialogue and Track 2 Diplomacy as Logistics Officer and interim Operations Manager, and with Peace Track Initiative (@Peace_Track) as Peacebuilding Policy Advisor.

Aïcha Madi (@aichamadi4) specializes in security issues in the MENA region. She is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Montreal in Public and International Affairs and is interning with Peace Track Initiative (@Peace_Track) as a Feminist Peace project assistant. 

In Yemen, a so-called “forgotten war” has been tearing the country apart since 2014. The armed conflict, the humanitarian crisis and the now raging Covid-19 pandemic have exacerbated already existing discriminative social norms, laws, and institutions against women. Despite negative gender stereotypes painting them as passive victims, women are the ones leading the peacebuilding work on the ground. Despairingly, as the number of victims from this conflict rises, the unwillingness of the international community to recognize and support local women’s expertise continues to be a missed opportunity towards reaching inclusive and sustainable peace. 

Canada, with its Feminist Foreign Policy, seeks to advance the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda and promote inclusive peace processes. In order to truly live up to its image of world leader in humanitarian assistance and feminist policies though, Canada has a lot of room for growth, especially when it comes to reconciling its aspirations and actions. As such, it should actively support and empower Yemeni women peacebuilders. As the traditional international organizations fail to show substantial results in Yemen, Canada should support and fund women-led international and grassroots organizations, which are operating under extreme conditions to bring real peace on the ground.

Where are the results?

In Yemen, the lack of significant progress is troubling considering the funds invested in UN peace missions. During the last six years, Yemenis have seen the deployment of two UN Special Envoys to Yemen (OSESGY), the signing of the Stockholm and Riyadh Agreements, the establishment of numerous committees, resolutions, and missions. Despite all of these, there has been little progress in the UN-led peace negotiations and the UN is not being appropriately held accountable for that. 

Credit: Hayat Al-Sharif via Peace Track Initiative

UN agencies have increased pledges for humanitarian response from 596 million USD in 2014 to 4 billion USD in 2019 and yet the humanitarian situation remains dire. The #WhereIsTheMoney campaign launched by Yemeni activists in 2019 sounded the alarm on corruption and diversion of humanitarian aid, demanding transparency and accountability from the international community. As part of the top 10 donors to the UN’s humanitarian plan to Yemen, Canada should support those demands. It should also confront its own contradictory approach and terminate arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which is currently fuelling the war in Yemen and putting civilians at great risk. Canada’s Feminist Foreign Policy should be reflected in all foreign policies decisions, including economic deals and humanitarian response plans. Moreover, in the face of the proven limitations of international organizations in Yemen, Canada should increase its focus on supporting and empowering local peacebuilding actors.

Women are already leaders 

While women are disproportionately affected by wars, they are not passive victims. In Yemen, they have been bravely leading efforts to stop the violence and increase the resilience of their communities. Local Yemeni women are currently accomplishing what the international community considers important goals: negotiating with militias; implementing local ceasefires and security arrangements; overseeing demobilization; and coordinating humanitarian relief. Women mobilized faster and were more effective than the United Nations to free detainees: since 2016, the Mothers of Abductees Association has progressively negotiated the release of more than 940 arbitrary detained persons. Although the UN-led process negotiating the release of detainees has existed since 2015, it just released this fall its first group of 1,081 out of the 15,000 known conflict-related detainees.

Yemeni women peacebuilders are more effective than large international institutions because they understand local contexts and are trusted as fair mediators. Despite this, they are excluded from the UN-led peace process because, as Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini wrote, “national and international state actors do not recognize their skills and strategies in addressing conflicts, even though their contributions and impact on the ground are vital”. The temptation to simplify wars as textbook two-sided conflicts obscures their complexity and excludes key voices at the negotiation table, such as women and youth, that could contribute to drafting a more sustainable peace agreement. This approach also fails to engage key stakeholders such as the southern factions in Yemen, which have specific grievances and challenges to raise. It certainly is foundational to the current deadlock in the peace negotiations in Yemen. 

This is why Canada must balance the practical everyday needs of women and girls with the strategic interest of the WPS agenda in operationalizing its Feminist Foreign Policy. So far, Canada’s advocacy has led to the use of progressive language on gender equality in Human Rights Council resolutions related to Yemen. It has also led to the establishment and renewal of the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE) to investigate the human rights situation there since 2017. This is considerable, because the GEE supports accountability efforts by reporting and documenting human rights violations and abuses, including sexual and gender-based violence. 

Canada has also invested 220 million CAD in Yemen since 2015 in humanitarian aid projects. However,  if providing access to livelihood, water, food, education, protection services and healthcare is crucial to minimize women’s vulnerabilities, it is not enough to effectively promote gender equality. In tandem, Canada must be a staunch ally in advancing women’s status, by amplifying their voices to support them in breaking that very same cycle of vulnerability. An authentic Feminist Foreign Policy should be about investing in women not only because they represent half of the population but because their involvement in peacebuilding and conflict resolution is game-changing and necessary

What can Canada do better?

In order to play a critical leadership role in advancing the WPS agenda around the world and especially in conflict-ridden Yemen, Canada should: 

  • Push for sound monitoring of the projects it funds so they don’t enable violence or further military goals of conflict parties.
  • Impose conditions for accountability and transparency to ensure that UN entities it supports publicly share their audited financial reports, as well as demand that data be segregated by gender. 
  • Halt arms transfers to countries and parties involved in the war in Yemen. 
  • Pose conditions to ensure that an inclusive and accountable UN peace process takes place. The disrespect of previously agreed-upon quotas, the lack of meaningful participation from women and youth, or negligence when it comes to the security of women participants must be strongly condemned.
  • Commit to long-term and sustainable protection programs for Yemeni women and girls. This should include specific programs for women human rights defenders, whose lives are often threatened for their activism, and for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).
  • Allocate a greater portion of funding to women-led, grassroots or international organizations to lower barriers to participation in the peace process and support indigenous forces of peace.
  • Continue supporting the mandate of the GEE with a view to support accountability and reparation.
  • As the current UN Envoy to Yemen term comes to an end, support the appointment of a woman UN Envoy.

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