An unlikely place for women to help end a tragic war

A new cease-fire in Yemen’s war required women at the table. For a country with the largest gender gap, this is a breakthrough for the whole Middle East.

AP
The Houthi (left ) and Yemeni government delegates shake hands in Stockholm after a Dec. 13 agreement.

The country of Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula has two notable distinctions. It is currently home to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, caused by a war raging since 2015. It also ranks the worst in its “gender gap,” or inequality between men and women. Both of these reputations took a hit on Thursday.

The first was big news. Yemen’s warring parties agreed to a cease-fire for the port city of Hodeidah, the main entry for aid to feed a country on the brink of mass famine. At talks in Sweden sponsored by the United Nations, the two sides also agreed to an exchange of prisoners and to prepare for negotiations to achieve a political settlement of the war. If the agreement holds, millions of Yemenis could be saved.

The other was that Yemeni women were involved in the talks. Rana Ghanem, who was a member of the government delegation, sat at the table while other women from different political sides assisted the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths.

In the history of Middle East conflicts, their presence may have set a precedent for peace negotiations.

For several years, the voices of Yemen’s women activists have helped create momentum for the talks. “It is Yemen’s women who during the conflict have maintained the social fabric of society and kept communities together. They are the nurturers, mediators, peacemakers, and keepers of tradition,” writes Nadia al-Sakkaf, who was the first Yemeni woman appointed as Information minister.

Women could also ultimately influence how Yemeni leaders put their society back together. Of the country’s 3 million displaced people, about three-quarters are women and children.

Critical to this female participation has been ongoing UN efforts to include women in peace negotiations everywhere. UN envoys for Yemen have made a point of consulting Yemeni women, especially at a gathering in 2015 that brought women together from all sides in Cyprus. Their work was made easier by the prominent role that women played in Yemen’s protests in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, such as activist Tawakkol Karman. For her work in the nonviolent struggle for the safety of women, she was given the Nobel Peace Prize.

To implement Thursday’s cease-fire agreement, the UN Security Council still needs to pass a resolution of support for the UN’s role in the deal. It should also reinforce the global effort to ensure women are involved in every peace negotiation. Yemen may be last in gender parity. But it is far ahead by the example it just set.

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