In Yemen, COVID-19 has exacerbated one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Yemen is dealing with its sixth year of unrelenting conflict, which has devastated the country’s healthcare system and economy. Yet women peacebuilders and human rights defenders continue working to better their communities. Noura from the National Organisation of Development (NODS) and Sharooq from Improve Your Society Organisation (IYSO) share their experiences as women in Yemen and discuss how a WhatsApp-based peacebuilding course has helped them during the pandemic.
“The situation in Taiz is not stable,” explains Noura, a field coordinator for NODS. “We have periods of peace but it is a fragile peace. This fragile peace and the constant imminent fights in and around the city is making the security of women unstable as well. Road closures and the siege is preventing women from going to work and school, and doing domestic errands like collecting cooking wood and water. The children are suffering and their education is always compromised. Women and children are killed because of the snipers, so they stay at home most of the time which affects their mental health as well.”
“Violence against women has increased significantly [since the conflict began],” adds Sharooq, a training coordinator for IYSO. “The [inequality] gap between women and men has increased, and the security situation is adding an extra barrier for women – the more insecure the situation is, the more restrictions to movement women and girls face.”
Since the escalation of conflict in 2014, women-led organisations and women activists have been at the forefront of working to improve conditions for communities across the country, from tackling infrastructure damage to roads, hospitals and housing, to building awareness of harmful and violent practices in communities and against women and girls, and training volunteers to be active members of society. Women throughout Yemen play a significant role in creating change in their communities and leading initiatives when they have the necessary support and opportunities to do so from their communities. But peacebuilding activities have taken a backseat to the growing pandemic as communities pause to better understand new concerns related to COVID-19.
COVID-19 in Yemen
Despite a low number of initial cases, there was a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in Yemen in June 2020. At present there are over 2,000* recorded cases, although difficult to know the true scale due to a lack of testing.
Sharooq notes the gendered differences in how people in Taiz have reacted to the virus. “Women who have their own businesses have followed the health advice and official orders strictly. Generally, men were less concerned and kept their shops opened or didn’t observe the lockdown rules and social distancing advice, regardless of the danger of transmitting the disease to their families, mostly to the women who stayed home. When the schools were closed, only the mothers had to sacrifice their jobs to stay home and look after the children.”
Noura adds, “The intensive care units [in hospitals] have many patients in one space, some of them are not COVID-19 patients, but who are in a critical condition, so they are mixing. When I was sick, I didn’t go to the hospitals because they don’t have the necessary means for testing and medication.”
Due to limited support and guidance from government authorities, many civil society groups began COVID-19 prevention projects, distributing supplies including masks and sanitisers and providing information about the virus. However, the response has generally not been tailored to the specific needs of women, who have faced further challenges including increased levels of domestic violence at home as well as extra unpaid care responsibilities.
“There were not many projects around COVID-19 [prevention] for women. So we have to protect ourselves. Especially [families] with low income, many women died because they didn’t have the money to buy the necessary medication. All medicine prices spiked, even water and food prices,” adds Noura.
“Women themselves have been unable to think about their own needs, and when we ask them, they always think about their families and communities,” Sharooq notes.
Supporting civil society remotely
In May this year, Saferworld began a new round of our WhatsApp-based Participatory Peacebuilding course, first introduced in 2016 as a way to unite peace activists during the conflict.
This year, the course was adapted to the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions that had limited people’s movement and peacebuilding projects in communities. Staff from 13 of our partner organisations in Yemen took part in the training, including Noura and Sharooq.
“It was my first time joining this kind of training...I was curious, the first thing that I thought about was around the challenges, I thought how can a training be delivered via WhatsApp? Then I thought about the good side, like being with many peacebuilding workers from different areas with different experiences,” Sharooq explains. “The way the modules were designed allowed us to start by understanding the differences between the participants, this was necessary for a fragmented context like Yemen, to then bring us together.”
The month-long training, which includes modules on how to conduct a conflict analysis and how to plan and budget projects, also has a gender component to help men and women activists to consider gender and women’s needs in their projects.
“The [gender module] exercises helped us to know that our gender expectations and norms in some governorates were different than what we thought. As a woman, I was pleased to see that our brothers in locations that are perceived to be extra conservative were not what I expected, and women in those locations are having more support than I thought. We learnt a lot about each other,” says Sharooq.
“These kinds of training are convenient in situations where physical distancing is required,” she continues, noting that more women were able to take part who wouldn’t usually be able to attend in person. “Remote training is giving opportunities to women who usually don’t have access to trainings, because of their [rural] location. But with the poor internet, it is still a challenge. Another challenge has to do with women’s daily house chores that prevented some of the female participants from following the course 100 per cent.”
We designed the course for our partners to pass on their learning and to run the course with their own communities – encouraging more women to become activists in their communities and unite more people across conflict lines. When the course ended, Sharooq shared her learning with another organisation working with women, helping them design, plan and budget for COVID-19-related projects, including one to promote women’s economic independence through handicraft skills training. With Sharooq’s guidance, the projects received funding, impacting the lives of more women with lower incomes in Taiz.
“I see opportunities to use the knowledge from the training in my work,” Noura adds. “What I learnt helped me in convincing more women to be engaged in their community issues. This training will give women in rural areas the power of knowledge they need.”
For Yemeni women facing restrictions to movement due to the pandemic and ongoing conflict, remote training tools have not only provided learning and skills, but a space for interaction and mutual support to aid their mental health. “[The course] allowed me to share my story,” Noura concludes. As COVID-19 continues to affect communities across the country, such outlets will remain essential in Yemen’s path to recovery and peace.