A platform for voices supporting women's rights
The first thing you notice about the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, is how much has not changed. Yemen is a very conservative society governed by tribal traditions, for years women were almost invisible and had no say in what went on in their country.
When you take a walk in the streets of Sanaa, the women you see are covered in black from head-to-toe. That is why the whole world took notice when Yemeni women were at the forefront of the demonstrations that eventually ousted long-time president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and brought in a new government. “It was a turning point in my life,” says Fayza al-Suleimani. At first glance it is easy to stereotype Ms Suleimani, who was completely covered except for her eyes. But, in fact, it was her and thousands of others like her who took to the streets and demanded change. She did it behind her family’s back and had to face their rage when they found out that she was in the streets demonstrating.
As I walked with her in Sanaa’s Taghyir (Change) Square, which was at the heart of the uprising against Mr Salih, she pointed out where she and other women and men had gathered back in 2011. There was pride in her voice when she spoke to me about those days, but also an obvious sense of disappointment. “We came here and we were full of hope. We made many sacrifices,” she says. “We lost a lot of people. Personally, I lost six friends who died – they were dreaming of a good future for Yemen, for their children and their family and that’s not what happened. Nothing has changed,” she says.
In fact, things got worse for Yemen after the 2011 uprising. Unemployment among young people in Yemen is as high as 40%, according to the World Bank. The IMF says nearly half of Yemen’s population lives below the poverty line and roughly one-in-two children suffers from malnutrition. “Life is difficult in Yemen as it is. During transition, life is harder,” says Nadia Sakkaf, editor of the Yemen Times newspaper.
Conditions are particularly tough for women. Yemen is the worst country in the world in terms of gender equality, according to a World Economic Forum survey. The majority of women are illiterate and more than half get married before the age of 18.
Child marriage is one of Yemen’s most controversial issues. “Many girls get married at the age of nine, 10 and 11, when they are very young and can’t bear the responsibility of marriage,” Horia Mashhour, Yemen’s human rights minister, tells me. “When they are 14 or 15 they can get pregnant and sometimes they die during childbirth.”
Part of the reason why women took to the streets in 2011 was to help those voiceless women who live in poverty and have no access to education. But in this deeply traditional and tribal country progress is slow.
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