On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly 73rd Session in New York, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on Monday convened a session entitled: Protecting the health and rights of women and girls affected by conflict: Focus on Yemen and South Sudan. Speakers at the session powerfully demonstrated that women are disproportionately vulnerable to the horrors of war.
Crown Princess Mary of Denmark stated in her remarks that “vulnerability is not a sign of weakness, but inequality.” In the struggle for women’s rights, it is essential to avoid a narrative that disempowers women and girls by viewing them solely as victims. This point was reiterated by the Minister for Development from Denmark, who announced her country’s commitment of $20.4 million in aid to humanitarian partners in Yemen.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has had a devastating impact on the rights and health of women and girls, the most urgent matters being the substantial increases in gender-based violence (GBV) and maternal mortality rates. As the UK representative informed the session, GBV in Yemen has increased by over 70% since the start of the Saudi-led conflict in 2015. Several representatives documented horrific cases of rape, trafficking and other forms of sexual violence.
Christos Stylianides, representing the European Union, stressed the “moral imperative” of combatting all GBV and referred to the fact that the vast majority of sexual violence survivors never see justice. “Gender-based violence is not just another form of violence,” he said. Instead, it is “a threat to human dignity.” Stylianides called for stronger measures to protect women and girls, which he described as “a lifesaving priority.”
The war and the associated large-scale displacement of people have also had disastrous effects on health, another issue disproportionately that affects women and girls. As stated by the UK representative, 76% of internally displaced people in Yemen are women and children. The representative from Yemen told the session that three million Yemeni women and girls are in acute need of protection and medical support. Access to medical supplies is severely limited, with only 45% of health facilities fully functional.
Around 20% of displaced women in Yemen are pregnant, and over a million of them suffer from malnutrition. Malnutrition during pregnancy can lead to stunted growth in new-borns and complications during childbirth that, according to Yemen’s representative, threaten the lives of some 75,000 women. Even before the crisis, Yemen had the one of the highest rates of maternal mortality rates in the region. As with so many other issues, this problem has only been exacerbated by war.
A significant barrier to solving the crisis in health and human rights in Yemen is that, according to many observers, medical and humanitarian aid is often misused and misdirected. The Yemeni representative asserted that such aid has been appropriated by the Houthi militia and NGOs loyal to them.
Representatives at the UNFPA session stressed the importance of coordinating humanitarian efforts with the High Relief Committee of the Yemeni government to ensure that aid is delivered to those who need it most.
While the proper management of aid is crucial, only an end to the conflict in Yemen will begin to solve the problems that Monday’s session was convened to address. Indeed, even bringing an end to the war will be no magic bullet. In reality, the health risks and human rights violations faced by women and girls can only be sufficiently addressed by a radical improvement of women’s rights more generally.
A crucial aspect of improving women’s rights is women’s political involvement, according to the UK representative. “Women and girls are not only affected by conflict — they can also be part of the solution,” she said. “When women wield power in places of conflict, they can bring about extraordinary change.” She noted also that, “when women are at the negotiating table, peace accords are 35% more likely” to be sustained. In other words, addressing violations of women’s rights caused by conflict will help to prevent further conflict.
Indeed, this analysis is not limited to preventing war. Fundamentally, the empowerment of women correlates with high standards in almost every social metric, from health to education. Where women have control over their own bodies and their own destinies, dramatic improvements at every level of society quickly follow. While one can hope that events such as the UNFPA session are a step in the right direction, much more needs to be done.