Civil society organizations are on the frontline of this struggle. This could be seen clearly in the sizeable participation of women in a workshop held by the World Bank on September 1st in Sana’a, entitled “Sharing the results of a capacity assessment study of Civil Society Organizations”, which I also attended. What I found striking during the event was that around half of the participants were women, some of them head of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) working in various fields.
“Yemeni women should ignore everything men say about them and stay focused on their work and their goals. The more she faces cultural constraints and social hurdles the more she should drive toward success,” said a female participant while discussing the difficulties women engaged in development work face in Yemen.
Fawzia, a young woman from Ma’rib governorate, one of the most conservative governorates in Yemen where tribal customs still dominate life, was a striking example of the determination of Yemeni women. She talked about her experiences leading a civil society organization. Her organization has helped people in Ma’rib develop their own voice and make it heard. Fawzia recalled that when she first started doing the work, the community did not approve and she was subject to threats. However, with her insistence and determination, she managed to overcome the difficulties she encountered and gradually won over her community. In that regard, Fawzia says that today local government officials consult with her when discussing the role of civil society organizations in Ma’rib. She points out that the key factor for her success was the realization by the officials that the financial support civil society organizations receive benefits the whole community.
She went on to say that benefits vary between men and women since each has a different role. However, she stressed that women should no longer remain only the target of development programs, but rather they should become an indispensable partner in the development process.
The reason behind the increasing momentum of women’s involvement in development is a product of the suffering they have experienced over the past decades. With regard to the challenges ahead, Fawzia cautioned that some may try to obstruct the role of women. If the participation of women is limited to women’s associations that have a limited impact, there will be significant negative consequences for development.
Fawzia also notes that the way Yemeni men perceive the other sex has significantly changed as a result of women’s participation in development work. “Every success story of a Yemeni woman contributes to changing the traditional perception of the role of women,” she added.
With regard to the assessment study itself, Fawzia believed that if its recommendations are translated into action it could have a significant impact. It would allow women to engage in development work by setting up new organizations in different fields. The registration process for new civil society organizations, often a hurdle due to nepotism and profiteering, would be simplified.
During discussions of the outcomes of the assessment study, it became clear that more work needs to be done. The capacities of civil society organizations need to be built up to make them more effective. The study also stresses the importance of forging a partnership between civil society organizations and the Yemeni government. Women’s enthusiasm in this workshop and their active participation reflected their dream of a better future where people are not differentiated by their gender, but by their contribution to society.