By Jeff Baron

Activists and officials in Yemen are finishing work on proposals to improve its worst-in-the-world record on opportunities for women.

Counterpart International’s Responsive Governance Project (RGP), the Ministry of Human Rights and the Women’s National Committee plan to unveil the agenda at a conference March 19 in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.

“Yemen is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of the gender disparity,” says Abdul Karim Alaug, Deputy Chief of the RGP in Yemen. The program has been helping civil society groups develop policies to address what they have identified as Yemen’s critical problems. And Alaug says the status of women is “a crosscutting issue” that affects Yemen’s progress in all areas.

The World Economic Forum has issued a Gender Gap Report for each of the past six years, and Yemen has ranked last every year. In a country with limited opportunities and resources for its people generally, Yemeni women especially are deprived economically, educationally and politically, the nonprofit said. They suffer from high maternal death rates, and illiteracy is twice as common among women as among men.

The most recent Gender Gap Report ranked Yemen among the bottom five nations for women’s economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment and political empowerment. It was 83rd among 135 countries in women’s health and survival.

A change at the top

Yemen’s array of persistent problems inspired a popular uprising that forced out President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years in power, and the country still faces a rebellion in the south and a sectarian split in the north. The newly elected president has promised a two-year transition to reform the military and the government and to write a new constitution.

Alaug says the two segments of society that have emerged as “very important actors” in Yemen’s movement for change are young people and women. “These two groups have been excluded, to a large extent, from the political as well as the social and economic dialogue in the country,” he says.

Yet Stephanie Baric, the Director of Counterpart’s Yemen programs, says Yemenis generally agree on the importance of improving the situation of women.

“Through our focus group discussions and in reports and assessments that have been conducted in Yemen, there is a general recognition that … achieving sustainable human development in Yemen requires addressing the gender inequities,” she says.

A 2010 survey by the Status of Women in the Middle East and North Africa also showed some support for change: Nearly 60 percent of Yemeni men and women favored the use of gender quotas in their elected bodies to increase women’s political representation, and 64 percent supported women as political candidates. Only one of the 301 members of the Yemeni Parliament is a woman.

The proposals being offered this month are designed to turn the talk about improving women’s status into reality.

A consensus of rivals

Political divisions have complicated the effort. Alaug says the Responsive Governance Project tried to bring together women’s activists from different groups to develop a common platform on gender issues, “but because of their differences in their political affiliation they don’t sit together.”

So the project worked with rival factions separately.

“After we did civil workshops and training, [we assisted] them in developing their demands and what we call Yemeni women’s agenda,” he says. The result: “The three documents that are coming from three different affiliations, you see the demands are the same,” Alaug says.

“So what we are going to do now is to develop one document that represents the views and demands of women in Yemen to be presented to any political structure that will come after this [pro-democracy] movement,” he says.

One of RGP’s objectives is to strengthen civil society organizations so they are better able to represent Yemenis and work with government officials. “There is a disconnection between government institutions and civil society organizations, including women’s organizations. And we have been trying to do many activities to facilitate that dialogue and communication,” Alaug says.

Among the policies already being pushed by the RGP and its Yemeni partners: raising the proportion of women in the nation’s teaching force to at least 30 percent; increasing the availability of emergency obstetric care and making other free childbirth services available nationwide to cut the number of maternal and infant deaths; and providing family planning services at no cost.

Progress on health

Lina Amin, a pediatrician and head RGP Policy Technical Officer, says the approach is working on health issues. “Already the Ministry of Health is accepting the participation of [civil society organizations] … during planning, during the development of strategy,” she says.

Jamila Alraabi, Deputy Minister of Yemen’s Ministry of Public Health and Population, said the RGP has helped the ministry update its strategy on reproductive health, worked on maternal health policies and supported the training of midwives in every governorate, or province, in the country.

Alraabi said her agency works closely with local councils of activist groups, religious leaders and other community leaders to put policies in place and provide outreach, health awareness and education programs.

Fatma Uqba, the RGB’s Advocacy Manager, says a cooperative approach pays off for both sides.

“We don’t want [government officials] to think that we are just forcing them to accept some policies,” she says. “We want them to be part of the policies and to feel the partnership. So this is what we mean by educating the government.”

The RGP, run by Counterpart in partnership with the National Democratic Institute and the Research Triangle Institute, is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.