Sawsan Al-Refaei

How Humanitarian and Peace Frameworks Fail to Respond Systemically to Gender-based Violence in Yemen

December 2022

As different warring parties in Yemen fail to demonstrate hard power, territorial control or political legitimacy, Yemenis continue to suffer one of the direst humanitarian crises and an unprecedented surge in gender-based violence. While women and children are disproportionately impacted by hunger and displacement and drop out from education, boys continue to be recruited for armed conflict.

Gender-based Violence: The Old and the New

Women and girls, who are disproportionately affected by the crisis in Yemen, are facing human rights violations in the public and private spheres, specifically gender-based violence (GBV). As elsewhere, GBV is not new to Yemen and occurred long before the current war. It affects girls and women, boys and men. This paper looks at the experiences of Yemeni women and girls in particular, who have long suffered from different forms of GBV, including domestic violence, honour killings, female genital mutilation, child marriage, and harassment. The severity and scope of these forms have been heightened by conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic,1 and climate change.

Almost all forms of GBV are aggravated by political and security instability, like homicide in the form of ‘honour crimes’, sexual violence in the form of rape, early and coercive marriage. Violators, who can be family, close relatives or people in the community, take advantage of collapsing law enforcement systems and the fragility of social protection mechanisms to increase the severity and scope of their crimes. In addition, physical violence and torture2 can be used by state and de facto state groups and personnel to terrorize women out of the public realm. Economic violence against women also prevails in the form of deprivation of rights and resources, deprivation of education, control over salary or income, and denial of inheritance.

The ideological direction of the warring parties and the increasing popularity of extremist religious views have also contributed to pushing women back to the private domain and away from public institutions. Yemeni women face alarming levels of restrictions on movement3 in Hodeidah, Hajjah, and Sanaa, areas under Houthi control, where authorities require them to be accompanied by a mahram (male relative) in order to travel internally and abroad. In 2019, local media reported that Houthi authorities issued directives to local bus companies requiring that women be escorted by a mahram when traveling between cities in Yemen. Women also reported to local media that bus drivers have refused to take them because they do not have a mahram, or that it costs them more money to travel since they must pay for the mahram’s ticket. Women are also not allowed to stay in hotels except when accompanied by a mahram. In addition, authorities require women to show guardianship permission and have their guardian present—a father, brother, husband, or son—to obtain or renew personal identity cards or passports, despite the national law not specifically requiring such conditions. Women’s lack of access to legal documentation restricts their ability not only to travel abroad but also to access food aid4 and other opportunities for employment.

Many forms of GBV are being tolerated or even used by warring parties to suppress political and civic participation5 of marginalized groups, including women. This ideology for faith-based armed groups in Yemen, including Houthis, aims to curtail the growing interest and capacity6 of women, since the 2011 uprisings, to protest, campaign, or mobilize in society. In the last two years, the parties to the conflict have accused women of prostitution, mixing with strangers or men as a form of immorality,7 using derogatory terms as part of their public threats and harassment against opponents. In Sanaa, the Houthis have used such threats and harassment when suppressing public demonstrations involving women, and such accusations have been directed as a means of legitimizing the arbitrary detention of women.

Women humanitarian workers and women’s rights activists8 have been targeted online and on the ground to limit their influence and reach through defamation campaigns to suppress their voices and hide their realities. Unprecedented extreme actions against women, such as detainment, imprisonment, torture, and kidnapping, are being used. What were previously random and individually targeted GBV attacks have developed in the last few years into organized campaigns aimed at ridiculing women activists living in the diaspora, or women active in the public realm in general.

Despite the increased visibility of GBV issues in the humanitarian sector in Yemen, there are many more actors than previously who need convincing that GBV is a serious violation of human rights and a life-threatening health and protection issue. Despite the commitment to global humanitarian strategies and protocols, there is failure to translate these commitments into action. We know this from the dwindling global funding9 allocated for specific GBV interventions in emergencies and the lack of transparency and data around impact (as explained below). There is an urgent need for different actors—state authorities, donors, implementing international and national organizations and local civil society—to end GBV effectively and sustainably.

Where is the Data?

GBV has long been defined by key United Nations (UN) agencies10 as “harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender”. The term is used uniformly now by humanitarian actors in Yemen. However, this term overlaps with the term ‘protection’ in many contexts, which can be confusing and misleading when non-physical forms of GBV are at stake. The way the UN cluster system in Yemen divides the Protection cluster into sub themes of GBV, child protection, and mine action raises questions about the founding principles. The topics within the GBV sub-cluster focus on “domestic violence, emotional violence and denial of access to services and opportunities”.11 This rather broad spectrum of issues dilutes the key components of what GBV is all about: sexual, physical, emotional, and economic abuse. These can be discussed in the context of harmful social traditions and norms or against the background of displacement, but apparently the context has replaced the humanitarian issue. The UN cluster system also reports on child labour, begging, child marriage, sexual violence and exploitation and child recruitment under child protection, as if a gender dimension is lacking in all these phenomena.

The term GBV has also widely replaced the term ‘violence against women and girls’ to recognize that violations can also take place against men and boys—particularly when committed with the explicit purpose of reinforcing gender inequitable norms—but this is rarely recognized in the design of GBV-related plans and interventions. The term is also used in the context of individual acts against women and girls, and rarely underscores its systemic nature.12

In the annually published Humanitarian Needs Overviews, GBV-related needs are neither well defined nor appropriately quantified—and this translates into ambiguous needs analyses. Data on the GBV subcluster appeared in the Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) only in 2021. Before that GBV issues were lumped with all protection topics including child protection, and landmines.13 The 2021 HRP14 promised to centralize protection (including its GBV responsibility area which is expected to prioritize women and girls along with men and boys who are at risk of GBV in all its forms), to ensure accountability to affected populations, and to support community-based protection mechanisms. However, as far as GBV quantitative and qualitative data is concerned, the humanitarian sector invested little effort in monitoring GBV over the years. Despite the remarkable improvement in the more updated HRP, both in use of clearer and more direct language related to GBV and better mainstreaming of GBV in other sectors, data quality remains questionable.15

GBV studies are conducted by a wide spectrum of agencies, with variable capacities. These studies are usually based on specific governorates or examine specific types of violence, making it very difficult to aggregate GBV data at the national level. The GBV Area of Responsibility (GBVAoR) dashboard16 aggregates needs in millions and does not provide any quantitative data on GBV forms and their prevalence. Studies are also outdated. The last GBV assessment17 conducted, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), was in 2016. Terms used, such as ‘people reached’ and ‘specialized services’, are not clearly defined; complex terms describing GBV interventions, such as ‘multi-sectoral GBV response services’ and ‘livelihood and skills building for gender-based violence survivors’, are vague and lack transparency. Hence, useful data through measuring such indicators becomes unobtainable. GBV dashboards report predominantly on indicators that are easiest to measure, but which have the least sustainable impact, such as the number of trainings implemented or the number of beneficiaries who received cash assistance. Such indicators do not reflect changes in the lives of GBV survivors.

The constraints by authorities to collect data especially in the north of Yemen are well- known, but isn’t the cluster system designed to pool expat and local expertise and to innovatively overcome barriers on the ground? The lack of GBV expertise in humanitarian organizations, HQs, and local country offices contributes to the lack of critical thinking and problem solving when it comes to GBV data. The lack of technical and contextualized expertise may be behind the lack of vision for a comprehensive GBV strategy and capacity, not only to build a case for a more transparent and efficient GBV data information system but also to build the case for a greater percentage of humanitarian funding. Data from other emergencies prove that strong coordinators with good leadership qualities and dedicated time and funding were crucial to the improvement of GBV data integration.18

Currently, reporting to humanitarian data platforms by governments that give aid and by implementing agencies is voluntary and inconsistent, and there is no standard way to monitor GBV or mark GBV or gender spending in general. We do not know how much is allocated and disbursed for GBV and where funding is going.

Where is the Money?

It is disappointing that as humanitarian crises in Yemen deepen, and GBV prevalence continues to rise, funding continues to be very small compared to other sectors. The GBV sub-cluster secured only 19 per cent of its required funding, leaving 4.1 million women and 4.3 million girls in need unsupported. Only 22 per cent of intended targets were reached.19 OCHA data shows that in 2020, 350,000 women lost access to GBV services following the closure of 12 women and girls’ safe spaces due to the lack of funding.20 As of October 2021, only 54 per cent of the US$27 million required for women protection programs was secured.

This is a global problem. It is only relatively recently, in 2016, that GBV became a stand-alone sector21 within the Humanitarian Financial Tracking Service, and it is still often hidden under wider budgetary allocations for ‘Protection’. It is not clear in many instances how much money was earmarked for interventions that have GBV response and prevention as principal or significant goals versus those where GBV is only mainstreamed. This makes it very difficult to track expenditure accurately. There is a ‘gray area’22 around investments in GBV and investments in broader gender equality or broader humanitarian aid. As a result, GBV expenditures could be overestimated if dollars spent in sectors like health, nutrition, and WASH are included (it is the case when GBV expenditure is tracked against non-GBV key performance indicators). GBV expenditure can also be underestimated for the same reason if program coding does not spell out GBV in its phrasing.

Sensitivities around GBV work also make tracking interventions difficult. For example, as Houthis do not approve programs that clearly address GBV, humanitarian actors are under constant pressure to either ‘rename’ gender and GBV interventions, which further sabotages GBV tracing processes, or change the purpose of funding to other more acceptable forms of programming, such as economic empowerment and social protection of women. This is also a direct reason why sustainable and systemic GBV systems are replaced in plans by less controversial short-term one-off activities like the distribution of ‘dignity kits’, which arguably do nothing in the long run to grant women and girls dignity.

While local non-humanitarian women’s organizations took on humanitarian responsibilities to respond to local needs and to comply with funding restrictions, recent research found they remain under-resourced and underrepresented in the humanitarian system.23  Small local women’s organizations face additional barriers to accessing GBV funding because of steep financial and compliance requirements that only larger organizations can typically meet.24 This leaves many of them in a vicious cycle of instability, unable to sustain efforts to protect women and girls in the communities they serve. Lifesaving services, such as clinical care for GBV survivors, shelters and safe spaces, continue to be worryingly underfunded and deprioritized in humanitarian responses.

With so many years of experience in Yemen, the region, and the world, the humanitarian sector is better equipped than ever before to address the challenge of tracking not only spending but also the impact of GBV programs. So why is it not done?

More Importantly: Where is the Impact?

GBV programming only reaches a small proportion of the population in need.25 Yet many humanitarian reports consider these results a silver lining. The HRP and the GBVAoR Dashboard report on activities not actual change. The sector is committed to provide access to critical assistance26 and protection services such as legal assistance, psychosocial support, prevention and response to GBV, child protection, and referral mechanisms. However, even a scrutinizing eye does not benefit from the aggregate nature of reported results. For example, the GBVAoR dashboard27 lumps the number of beneficiaries/survivors reached by case managers, hotline, outreach teams, and beneficiaries assisted with one or more of the referrals, legal, medical, psychological, and shelter services under one category, ‘Multi Sectoral Services’. Who is benefiting from each service and who is providing each service? This information is unavailable.

It is of great concern that the GBV sector (as well as many other humanitarian sectors) uses non-uniform methodologies to report impact. In some cases, impact is reported in activities; examples of this include number of dignity kits distributed or number of trainings conducted being used as ‘impact units’, which is unacceptable under both the results-based and the human rights-based approaches, approaches that the UN system considers central to their operations.

In other cases, reports refer to aid recipients as ‘beneficiaries’, implying that they have passively benefited from aid. At a stretch this may apply to other forms of aid such as distribution of food, or vaccination, but as far as GBV programming impact is concerned, activities such as awareness raising, capacity building and kit distribution are operational and only when proven to result in protection of the ‘affected population’ from GBV can we consider them to have benefited. Although these activities appear easier to both implement and count, we are yet to see evidence that the humanitarian system is serious about counting the number of beneficiaries of services that matter the most.

From January to September 2022, the number of implementing partner national NGOs has doubled.28 Despite the rise in the number of partners, which may indicate higher involvement of local organizations, there is no evidence that sustainable GBV referral pathways and quality service provision exist.

GBV work to empower women and girls through safe spaces and mobile clinics in the affected areas and to provide psychosocial support services through which women receive life-saving assistance is impactful work.29 But funding for these basic humanitarian services has begun to run out. Services for survivors are now in only 29 safe spaces in 21 governorates,30 and several specialized psychological centers are threatened with closure. Meanwhile, some actors follow ‘pilot as you go’ where they pilot innovative interventions too small to scale nationally and too new to be tested for effectiveness and efficacy. For example, remote case management and psychosocial support to GBV survivors and referral service applications31 are innovative means, but there is a lot of skepticism about how these innovative approaches primarily draw on one-time emergency, as opposed to more preventative approaches.32 Yemen may or may not be the ideal location to pilot these new approaches, but in all cases questions of data security, personal safety, and efficacy of such mobile health interventions have not yet been answered.

Does GBV Matter for Peace?

Yemeni women have been ‘insider mediators’ bringing parties to the table, or rebuilding relationships—and for this they subject themselves to risk. They experience harassment and intimidation. In their roles as mediators and humanitarian actors they serve as role models, but they have limited capacity to defend themselves. This weakens local peace processes and undermines the role of women in peacebuilding.

GBV has been overlooked by peace frameworks as and probably because of how it is overlooked in the humanitarian sector. Both Yemeni government and civil society Women, Peace and Security (WPS) action plans are inclusive of GBV which is a significant first step. The Yemeni government’s WPS National Action Plan’s 33 has been criticized34 by local women activists in Yemen for being limited to awareness raising, capacity building and research and overlooking important GBV- related aspects like reforming the security sector, eliminating discriminative laws and practices in the legal and judiciary systems, and support for female prisoners.

Where is GBV in the WPS agenda? Women peacebuilders working in politics, civil society, and government, along with women’s activists, have shared concerns about GBV35 but recommended comprehensive gender-based violence understanding and inclusion of GBV expertise in UN mechanisms and treaties.

There is no doubt that increasing women’s representation in judicial and law enforcement institutions as well as in peace negotiating delegations and government bodies strengthens the fight against GBV. However, WPS work has been mainly focused on representation of women in the peace process and focused more on Track One and Two peacebuilding.36 For talks to be credible and stand a greater chance of success,37 they need to include women.

Female peacebuilders struggle to connect the three tracks together and shield themselves from the social backlash on the one hand and the governments abandonment on the other. OSESGY and country representatives of leading peace sponsors in Yemen lack the GBV lens in their work and have little if any GBV expertise to guide the local WPS agenda. This affects their consultations, and the formal agenda of peace talks they are sponsoring, as GBV is absent.

Women and youth local and national networks feel isolated in integrating GBV in the peace process at both national and local levels. Nevertheless, this has not prevented them from achieving progress. GBV is currently present in a few peace-related spaces, where previously it was completely absent (most recent example includes Yemen International Forum held in Sweden in 2022).38 Women Solidarity Network integrated GBV areas, such as rape, into international accountability mechanisms and succeeded in listing GBV in the 2020 list of international sanctions in Yemen.39 But these efforts, despite their value, are isolated, not necessarily strategic and above all, are not credited or recognized by peace actors.

Women continue to lead local peacebuilding and mediation initiatives as well as respond and protect GBV survivors at grass-root levels against the odds; but much more can be done if peace actors and donors understand how central GBV is to the peace process and the WPS agenda.

Can the Humanitarian and the WPS Sectors Reform their GBV approach?

Yemen has been at the bottom of the Global Gender Gap Index40 for the last 13 years and is among the worst countries in the world in which to be a girl. The relationship between GBV and conflict is complex.41 Both are products of complex interactions of social, cultural, and economic factors, which interlink and mutually reinforce each other. Conflict aggravates all forms of GBV, but women and girls are disproportionately impacted. And conflict parties use GBV as a tool to further their political and land control. The humanitarian and peacebuilding sectors should address GBV in a comprehensive, robust, and well-funded manner. Both the humanitarian sector and the WPS work needs to elevate the profile of GBV and increase allocated funds, not only in Yemen, but globally too. Below is a list of recommendations to the various actors.

Establish Credible Data Systems: Humanitarian UN agencies, particularly those leading and participating in the the GBV-subcluster, are encouraged to align with the GBV Areas of Responsibility Strategy (2021-2025)42 principles of localization and accountability to develop transparent and credible data systems to measure the impact of GBV aid. GBV should be more defined and interlinkages between it and other sub-components of the Protection cluster need to be created. The humanitarian sector can invest in more transparent and credible data systems to measure the impact of GBV aid. More importantly, resources should be allocated to develop quantitative and qualitative baselines of GBV prevalence and render data collection more systemic and sustainable.

Increasing transparency around donor investments, commitments, and priorities is needed so that the total amount of funding for GBV can be more easily quantified and therefore planned against. GBVAoR is in need of urgent reform so that humanitarian needs and program impacts are accurately measured. GBV-related terms used in the sectors’ planning and reporting language should be clear and specific to allow accurate reporting of results.

Trust Those Who Know Best: Humanitarian donors should engage in regular evaluations of local partnerships’ impact in prevention and response. Local actors are best placed not only to envision and design a national GBV emergency action plan but they are also the ones who could change local dynamics that lead to GBV in the first place. Local voices on GBV funding gaps and service needs need to be amplified nationally and internationally. The GBV sector should focus on the quality rather than the quantity of local partnerships in finding local solutions for addressing GBV and prioritize partnerships that increase and improve reporting and tracking of GBV investments to ensure the sector has an accurate understanding of how fully it is (or is not) responding to the needs of populations at risk.

Sustain Services that Make the Difference: Humanitarian UN agencies should scale up in terms of geographical coverage and funding of GBV interventions. Shelter, psychological support, and legal aid to women across the various governorates are life-saving services for hundreds of thousands of Yemeni women and girls. These services deserve the lion’s share of funding. It is important to critically reassess projects in legal, judicial, and law enforcement sectors, which have the potential to strengthen systems that prevent and prosecute GBV, but which currently are neither timely nor have state structural support for them to succeed. It is important to note that GBV interventions cannot be looked at in isolation. They are only a portion of protection needs and overall humanitarian needs. A common vision for all GBV stakeholders, translated into a comprehensive GBV strategy for the whole humanitarian sector, would solve this.

Put GBV at the Heart of the WPS Agenda: For actors working on Yemen’s WPS agenda, consider what is on the table as well as who is around the table. GBV should be centralized in the WPS agenda and discussed in all peacebuilding forums. Feminists call for re-politicizing the WPS agenda,43 but more than ever it is time to also politicize the GBV agenda so that GBV becomes a pressing topic in political and peace negotiation spaces.

Transparent, Accountable, and Sustainable GBV Work is Vital: Political pressure should be exerted by donors and UN agencies on de facto state authorities to allow transparent and sustainable work around GBV. The government of Yemen should take serious steps to address GBV through support and financing of a national GBV emergency plan and establish a functional accountability mechanism to track and monitor GBV aid nationally and locally. UN agencies should fulfill its commitment to keep GBV central in its rhetoric. The government of Yemen, or whichever de facto authority is on the ground signing off funding agreements, is expected to provide more political and financial support towards reform and implementation of the NAP. It should work more closely with women’s local networks to address GBV in a more tangible and less performative fashion. Efforts to keep women within the judiciary and law enforcement as well as at the peace negotiation table should continue and not be dropped when increased focus is given to the GBV agenda. This will hopefully contribute to changes in discriminatory laws and changes in social behaviors that permeate GBV work. Donor agencies and implementing organizations in the humanitarian and peacebuilding sectors should ensure they have skilled GBV strategists and practitioners to integrate clear GBV indicators across their accountability frameworks.

The current moment, in which public support for women’s and girls’ rights is reaching a crescendo around the world, is an opportunity for actors in Yemen to reform their approach to GBV. It is now more than ever that we should ensure that all stakeholders’ rhetoric to end GBV in Yemen is translated into actions and dollars.

Sawsan Al-Refaei is an expert in gender equity, gender policy and advocacy. She has worked with governments, civil society, United Nations, and other international organizations on gender mainstreaming, protection and women, peace and security. She works primarily on Yemen and other emergency countries, but is currently working on gender issues during emergencies in Canada and globally. She specializes in the design, monitoring, and evaluation of development and emergency interventions in fragile states and during armed conflict. She is currently the Women and Gender Specialist in the municipality of Ottawa, Canada. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or its donors.

German Federal Foreign Office
Marwa Baabbad,
Jatinder Padda
Enas El-Torky (Arabic)
Caption: Three displaced women in Qahfa IDP camp preparing lunch, Shmayteen, Taiz.
Credit: Albaraa Mansoor.
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