Hadil al-Mowafak

Engaging Women in Yemen’s Peace Process Requires Better Alliances

October 2021

The traditional approach to Yemen’s peace process—in which armed groups meet behind closed doors to mold a ceasefire or a political agreement—has hit a dead end. For years now, many analysts have highlighted fundamental defects with the peace framework, including the outdated two-party approach between the Yemeni government and the Houthis.1 In his final speech as United Nations (UN) Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths cited this absence of comprehensive peace talks as his main source of frustration in recent years.2 Currently, the UN is once again designing a nationwide ceasefire between the Yemeni government and the Houthis. But with the appointment of Hans Grundberg as the new UN Envoy for Yemen, there is hope that the organization will change its mediation approach and expand the peace process to include other critical actors. This current moment represents an important opportunity for women and civil society to bring their perspectives and experiences of conflict to the table.

The collective accomplishments and extensive experiences of Yemeni women as peacemakers and peacebuilders qualify them to be front and center in any and all processes that will shape Yemen’s future. These women have worked relentlessly to provide peace and stability to their respective communities. In addition to facilitating prisoner exchanges and opening humanitarian corridors, they continue to mediate local ceasefires and provide critical services to local populations. And yet, the essential contributions of Yemeni women to peace on the ground have yet to land them a seat at the formal negotiation table. Instead, their engagement with the formal peace process has been restricted to Track II informal consultations, often derisively referred to as forums for token representation.3 Furthermore, women and civil society working at the grassroots level (Track III) find it difficult to connect with actors at Track II and Track I of the peace process. This means that the current framework of the peace process fails to incorporate the needs and views of a broad constituency of Yemenis who are key to establishing a more locally resonant and sustainable peace.4 

Currently, the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen (OSESGY) is exploring new pathways for civil society actors to become more involved in the preparations for a ceasefire mechanism, which includes a temporary cessation of hostilities accompanied by humanitarian relief measures. Feeding into this process, in June 2021, the Yemen Policy Center (YPC) conducted consultations with 22 activists and women-led civil society organizations working at the grassroots level in Aden, Hadramout, Marib, Sana’a, and Taiz, as well as two women activists in the diaspora. These consultations identified challenges and opportunities for grassroots women’s engagement with the ceasefire negotiations at the different levels. To ensure the inclusivity of these processes, this research shows that improved alliances and partnerships between local state institutions and women’s groups (operating at various levels) are required. Connecting the different tracks can increase the engagement of women’s and civil society groups in the peace process—including in ceasefire negotiations—offering them the opportunity to enact a more influential role in the ceasefire implementation process.

The ceasefire negotiations present a good opportunity for the UN to deliver on its promises to ensure a more inclusive peace process.5 The research reveals that holding consultations with local women and civil society groups is paramount to understanding the various options for their involvement—so long as these engagements are meaningful and not simply box-ticking exercises. Research respondents warned against rushing these consultations and the whole ceasefire negotiation process to avoid creating a fragile ceasefire that would fail to hold up in the face of the weakest challenges. At the same time, they asserted that the OSESGY and other international actors (i.e. European Union member states, Security Council members) should apply pressure on Yemeni warring parties to open up the ceasefire negotiations to women and civil society groups. At a minimum, OSESGY should ensure that women and civil society groups are well informed about the ceasefire process and that their inputs can be channeled into the ceasefire negotiations and agreement.   

Participation Through Horizontal Alliances and Partnerships

Women’s groups in Yemen face the same fundamental problems that hinder civil society at large from playing a more influential role in the peace process: the inability to build and sustain coalitions and networks. Coordinating action and working within and across coalitions can help women’s groups develop a common agenda for a gender-responsive ceasefire, improve the bargaining leverage of women’s groups as a collective, and establish new entry-points into the ceasefire through diverse coalitions. Overcoming the challenges to this approach will require women’s and civil society groups to rise above competition for donor funding and work to cut across sociopolitical divides. International donors and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) could support the establishment of these networks through equitable and longer-term funding, as well as provide training on how to create and manage these networks.

Building bridges between grassroots women’s groups and women peacebuilders at Track II is a good first step toward more representative participation in the peace process. Women’s networks at Track II, notably the Yemeni Women’s Pact (Tawafuq)6 and the Women’s Solidarity Network,7 can then bridge the gap between women at the grassroots level (Track III) and the conflicting parties at the negotiation table (Track I). They can do so through holding systematic and sustained consultations with women’s groups working on the ground to ensure that their recommendations are well-informed by the priorities and needs of the larger grassroots constituency. At the same time, these consultations could help grassroots women actors to better understand the issues being discussed at the higher levels of the peace process, enabling them to re-adjust and develop mobilization activities accordingly, as well as disseminate information about the peace process to the broader population.

And yet, despite obvious need, our findings show that there are currently no clear mechanisms of communication between the different tracks. One of the problems identified in the research is that access to Track II and Track I actors is contingent upon the breadth of actors’ personal networks. In fact, a local NGO executive affirmed “personal connections” as the single most influential factor in determining who gets to represent women’s issues at national or international conferences. Elaborating, she noted that while women working at the grassroots level carry out remarkable work on the ground, their accomplishments consistently go unnoticed due to their lack of connections—as is so often the case with the majority of local women peacemakers.

The mechanisms for selecting women representatives to participate in the Track II process has also reinforced this sense of exclusion among the women’s grassroots communities. The selection process has been described as lacking credibility and relying on nomination without transparent selection criteria.8 One of the research participants, a scholar who lives abroad, notes that women at Track II often come from similar backgrounds and share similar characteristics: they are well-educated, they live abroad, they speak English, and they are economically well-off. Hence, they tend to espouse views that seem “detached from reality and from the actual needs of women working on the ground”. This sentiment is widely shared among women from the grassroots community, who feel their issues and needs are not faithfully represented at the higher levels of the peace process.9

The research shows that overcoming this disconnect will require the initiative of women’s networks in Track II, the dynamism of women’s groups at the grassroots level, and stricter Track II criteria from donors. Some of the women interviewed place the responsibility of creating these communication channels on the women’s networks at Track II. Not only do these women’s networks have an ethical responsibility to represent grassroots voices to actors in Track I but they also have more resources, which would allow them to map and reach out to women working on the ground. The interviewees further suggested establishing accountability mechanisms to ensure that these consultations are not limited to a select few, and that new faces from diverse backgrounds are regularly invited to participate in these discussions. In the meantime, one interviewee stressed that women working at the grassroots level should not merely wait for the invitation from the outside; rather, coalitions among grassroots women’s groups should be built with the available resources and knowledge whenever possible. She referred to the Abductees’ Mothers Association as a successful example of a coalition that started small and local but eventually gained traction due to the significant impact they managed to create.

It is worth noting here that the representation of women peacebuilders at Track II is already very limited.10 Few women are invited to participate at Track II consultations, and when they do, their recommendations and input are largely disregarded by the mediator and Track I actors. Establishing connections and alliances with grassroots women’s groups will therefore not only help substantiate the content of their input but also maximize their bargaining leverage to access formal negotiations, aided by the backing of grassroots groups.

Influencing the Ceasefire in High-level Negotiations

Women’s groups have also been calling for their direct participation at the formal negotiation table at Track I level. According to these groups, any ceasefire agreement or political settlement that excludes the critical input of women’s and civil society groups will inevitably prioritize the interests of the warring actors over the needs and desires of the Yemeni people. Research respondents explained that the responsibility to ensure women’s direct participation at Track I level falls on the OSESGY and members of the Security Council, who can offer support by issuing a new resolution mandating women’s formal participation in the peace process in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1325. They maintained that in the absence of strong international pressure, Yemeni parties will continue to resist women’s participation in the peace process, as it runs counter to their interest in profiting from ongoing war.

One particular proposal highlighted by many respondents in this research was the inclusion of no less than 30 percent of women in all peace processes, including ceasefire negotiations, and all committees that emerge from negotiations. While some respondents stressed that this quota should be reserved solely for independent women who are otherwise deprived of opportunities for political participation, others advocated the inclusion of partisan women, either under this quota or separately through the seats reserved for their political parties.

To dispel concerns around the participation of partisan women in peace negotiations, a women’s organization leader—who is herself partisan—drew attention to the war’s devastating impact on all women equally. She claimed that the dire security and humanitarian situation in her city of Taiz pushed partisan women to put the needs of their communities above the interests of their political parties. In doing so, they managed to collaborate and forge connections with women across the political divide. She concluded by affirming that “whether independent or partisan, what matters is women’s [meaningful] presence in decision making circles”.

Women’s Engagement with Local Ceasefire Processes and Actors

Equally important to women’s participation in ceasefire negotiations is their inclusion in the various local ceasefire committees. The current draft of the Joint Declaration Agreement proposed by OSESGY mandates the establishment of several ceasefire committees, including but not limited to the COVID-19 Response Committee, Payroll Committee, Local Security Forces Committee, and a Military Coordination Committee.11 Research respondents expressed strong interest in joining and contributing to the work of these local committees, yet they were unaware of any mechanisms that could ensure their participation. In its current form, the draft of the Joint Declaration does not include any provisions on women’s and civil society’s roles in these committees; rather, it relegates their participation to the later stages of the peace process. The Office of the Envoy, however, has been actively seeking counsel on how to engage these actors in the local ceasefire mechanism.12

This research identifies at least two ways that women’s groups can ensure their access to local ceasefire committees. The first is through OSESGY’s direct facilitation of their participation, which would entail forging vertical connections between women’s groups and security actors at the local and national levels, based on clear and transparent selection criteria. This approach is most helpful for women’s groups who lack these connections, such as small organizations or women’s groups based in remote areas. One of the downsides of this approach, however, is that it risks politicizing the work of these women’s groups by associating them with the UN. A leader of a women’s non-profit organization expressed concern that such an approach would alert the de facto authorities to these women’s work. Even if their work is apolitical in nature, this approach could increase their risk of being red flagged and closely monitored by armed groups, especially in Houthi-controlled areas.

The second way, and the preferred approach, would demand the utilization of women’s groups’ communication channels with local authorities and security actors to negotiate their way into the local ceasefire committees. Central to this approach is access to governorate-level security committees, which are equipped to play a fundamental role in the ceasefire mechanism.   Previous research conducted by YPC shows that these security committees have an integrated consultative mechanism, which can be utilized to involve women and civil society actors in their work.13 Specifically, women can be included as experts or advisors in the technical and sub committees created to address particular security issues. Even if women were never meaningfully included in these committees in the past—especially given the security forces dismissive attitudes towards women’s security issues—their future inclusion remains a viable possibility worthy of consideration.  

Women’s Grassroots Organizations are Locally Connected, but Need Support 

The majority of the research respondents stated that their work already required them to establish communication channels with local authorities and security actors, including police officers and members of the security committees. They indicated that their specialized knowledge and expertise in women’s issues—and human security more generally—allowed them to give consultations and training to staff at security institutions and even collaborate with them on joint projects, such as the renovation of women’s prisons and the provision of human rights training to security actors.

Although these connections can serve as entry-points to local ceasefire committees, they do not in themselves ensure inclusion. Rather, women’s groups must actively advocate for their involvement by demonstrating the value they add to these committees. In fact, a nationwide survey conducted by the Yemen Polling Center in 2019 revealed that a third of the population is skeptical about the involvement of women’s groups in security-related work.14 For women to gain access, women’s groups at the grassroots level will need to acquire knowledge of the various security issues managed by each committee and their working mechanisms. This information can help them develop a plan for their contribution to addressing these issues based on their resources and capacities. Access to this type of information can be achieved through their networks with actors in Track II or through two-way consultations with OSESGY.

Research findings point out that political considerations can also play a major role in determining the membership of the ceasefire committees. This means that tensions between security actors and civil society groups can override rationalization of the latter’s capabilities to contribute positively to the work of these committees. This consideration is especially relevant to women’s groups working on human rights and accountability issues, as highlighted by some respondents in this research. However, this challenge can be partially mitigated by negotiating with security actors and local authorities under the umbrella of broad civil society alliances and coalitions that mask the identity of individual coalition members. Women’s groups could also strike alliances with traditional community leaders, such as tribal sheikhs and revered social figures, to maximize societal support for the cause of their inclusion.

Given the resistance of local actors to include women (formally or informally) in their committees and institutions, OSESGY should support their participation indirectly by adding provisions facilitating local women’s participation to the Joint Declaration Agreement. This should be done based on consultations with women’s groups, including direct consultations with grassroots groups, to ensure that the language of the provisions reflects their vision of involvement and the reality on the ground. Research respondents assert that these provisions will need to clearly set the roles of women and civil society groups within the ceasefire committees and articulate protection assurances from the parties to the agreement, leaving no room for creative ambiguity. Further, after consulting grassroots organizations on their preferences and needs, international organizations can develop programs that facilitate women’s access to local institutions and increase their knowledge about them.

Empowering Yemeni Women Peacemakers and Peacebuilders 

Arguments that justify women’s exclusion from peace processes, including ceasefire negotiations, based on a perceived lack of capacities do not hold water.15 To the contrary, Yemeni women’s accomplishments and extensive experiences as peacemakers qualify them to be at the front and center of negotiations. International donors and INGOs, especially those working on the women, peace, and security agenda, should coordinate and channel their support to these grassroots women’s groups. As their work is mostly self-funded, grants with less prescriptive requirements and longer timeframes, but fewer bureaucratic hurdles, could create equitable funding opportunities accessible to small and informal organizations. Flexible funding approaches could allow grassroots organizations to respond to new and urgent problems with projects informed by the communities’ needs and priorities. Furthermore, equipping grassroots organizations with the necessary tools and training on advocacy, building network structures, and promoting organizational development will go a long way toward empowering Yemeni women and rebuilding Yemen’s civil society structures.   

Women peacemakers in Yemen are showing exemplary strength as they work to bring peace and stability to their communities. They have built resilience by mostly relying on self-help strategies and networks of personal, familial, and community relationships. Yet, even local resilience structures have their limits. The prolonging of the war and the prevalence of unaccountable armed groups is likely to further test these limits, necessitating external assistance. International actors, including INGOs and diplomatic missions, are well positioned to offer this assistance in both protection measures and preventative efforts aimed at minimizing the variety of unique dangers faced by women peacemakers. This support could manifest in  several forms, including public solidarity statements, engagement in diplomatic dialogues with relevant authorities and actors, and the establishment of funding to allow rapid responses to severe threats. Ensuring the accountability of armed actors is equally important. Nonetheless, protection must be accompanied by empowerment, which can be achieved by pushing for greater representation of women in all decision-making circles, from the peace negotiation table to governance structures.

Hadil Al-Mowafak became a member of the Yemen Policy Center as a Research Fellow in 2020. In 2015, she joined Mwatana Organization as a researcher of human rights violations, documenting cases of civilian casualties, child soldiers, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and restrictions on journalistic freedoms. Hadil holds a B.A in Political Science from Stanford University (2020).

Supported with German Federal Foreign Office’s funds by IFA (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen), zivik Funding program
Mareike Transfeld
Copy editors:
Jatinder Padda
Mohammed Hamoud
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  2. United Nations Security Council Report S/PV.8797. ‘The Situation in the Middle East.’ June 15, 2021. The United Nations. Available at: https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/S_PV.8797.pdf[]
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