Yemen's only hope for lasting peace

By Rasha Jarhum

Three rounds of peace talks have so far failed to bring an end to the devastating conflict in Yemen. While the violence continues, consuming the lives of innocent people with catastrophic humanitarian consequences, the UN Envoy is struggling to revive the talks after a two-week pause. Throughout all of this, there is a missing force that could save thousands in my country: women.

Insisting upon womens' presence at the talks ensures the issues unique to them remain on the table. In fact, studies show that a peace agreement is more likely to last for at least 15 years if women are included in the process. But more than that, women have a right to be part of the decisions that will shape the future of their societies.

The formal peace agenda focuses on five main areas, including: 1) the withdrawal of militias and armed groups, 2) the handover of heavy weapons to the state, 3) interim security arrangements, 4) the restoration of state institutions and the resumption of inclusive political dialogue, and 5) the creation of a special committee for prisoners and detainees. These are important, but the agenda is missing a focus on gender and women priority issues, such as the protection of women and children and the demobilization and reintegration of child combatants.

Today, there are only three women out of a total of 26 peace negotiators, ignoring a quota of 30% that was agreed as part of the national dialogue conference outcomes, which was tasked with charting a new social contract for Yemen after the uprising in 2011 and inaugurated the transitional period. The national dialogue conference was relatively inclusive as women represented almost 30% (youth represented 20%). Women did not only participate as members but as moderators and leaders to main conference working groups. The result was a comprehensive package of rights and freedoms that formed the basis of a new democratic state.

Excluding women at the current peace talks will only lead to male power brokers carving up the spoils of a fragile peace between them. Issues of war and peace in Yemen have traditionally been limited to men: a two-party negotiation representing political and military forces, discussing the dynamics of power sharing. The result has been shaky peace agreements, political instability, sporadic armed conflict, power struggles, exclusion, and marginalization. We have not witnessed a single initiative where, for example, reparation for affected communities and social justice was achieved, one of the priorities women groups are calling for.

Yemeni women are working hard to make their voices heard. Last September, I was part of a group of women leaders who, with the help of UN Women, formed the Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security, aimed at increasing female participation in peace building. Through this effort, a group of us were invited by the UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to the most recent round of peace talks in Kuwait. Our mission was modest. We were present on the sidelines, holding meetings with national, regional, and international stakeholders, and delivering messages with the aim of reflecting the voices of 25 million Yemenis torn apart by war--especially the voices of women and children.

However, soon after our arrival was announced, debates erupted in both traditional and social media about our selection, role, agenda, legitimacy, and affiliations. Some saw us as new mediators and others concluded we were there to tip the balance in favor of one of the parties. This sort of media campaign against women peace-builders is not new; Syrian women were subjected to the same treatment when the UN announced the establishment of the Syrian Women Advisory Board.

There are many ways women could be involved today: as a separate delegation to ensure their rights are properly respected; as advisors to the mediators (as was the case in Syria); or as observers, witnesses, and signatories to the peace agreement.

Often at times of conflict, such as now, women are only seen as victims or perpetrators of violence, not as potential peacemakers and negotiators. The exclusion of women, however, risks taking Yemen down the same disastrous path as before. The negotiating parties must understand that any peace agreement must not benefit only those represented at the table, but rather should benefit the whole of society in Yemen. Having women present and addressing issues of social justice and responsibility sharing does not undermine their influence but rather it increases their legitimacy.

Yemen needs a stronger commitment to an inclusive process. The contribution of Yemeni women should be embraced, not spurned. This is Yemen's only chance for a lasting peace.

Rasha Jarhum is a member of the Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security, an initiative bringing Yemeni women leaders together to advocate for peace. She is a Senior Development Policy Advisor and Social Researcher and an Aspen New Voices Fellow for 2016.

Twitter: @RashaJarhum