Yemen’s women as warriors of peace

Amid the tragedy of Yemen’s long war and the loss of men, women are being forced into new roles. Foreign aid helps many rebuild their lives and the country’s social fabric.

Women wait to fill their cooking gas cylinders outside a gas filling station amid a scarcity in cooking gas supplies in Sanaa, Yemen, March 4.

One way to end a country’s civil war is to start rebuilding its social cohesion even before the war ends. In Yemen, where years of conflict have created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the war’s end is hardly in sight. But the rebuilding has begun. And, say aid workers, it is focused mainly on women.

Yemen’s conflict has resulted in so many men being killed, recruited for battle, or mentally shattered, that it has forced many women into roles rarely seen in such a conservative society. They have had to become providers, seeking work outside the home. They must rely on other women, even those on the opposite side of the war. And some have become champions for peace, either in starting street protests or participating in diplomacy to end the war.

Some three-quarters of Yemen’s 28 million people need some form of aid while 8.4 million of them are on the verge of famine, according to the United Nations. This week, the UN raised more than $2 billion to help civilians, much of it for food and health needs. But some portion of the aid so far has been dedicated to projects that create jobs for women, loan them money to start a business, or develop skills in farming and other professions.

The idea is to restore households one at a time, building islands of peace amid a landscape of conflict, or what is called an inkblot strategy. If enough women-led families can be saved and revived, they will reconnect the social fabric of Yemen, create conditions for peace, and perhaps help end the war.

The world is becoming more aware of what women can do in Yemen. In 2011, activist Tawakkol Karman was given the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in a nonviolent struggle for the safety of women during a popular uprising for democracy tied to the Arab Spring. And since then, many women have served as peacemakers in resolving political disputes as the country slowly descended into war, a war driven in part by a proxy fight for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

War often affects women in cruel ways, but in Yemen’s case, women may also be one way out. Many of them are finding themselves in charge for the first time. With enough foreign assistance, they might just be those needed islands of peace.

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