Yemen's Response to COVID-19: Part III

In Yemen, local actors, governance mechanisms and communities are all shaped by strong cultural roots and regionally nuanced socio-political dynamics. These systems face increasingly extreme threats and pressures, nonetheless they form part of a social fabric which gives direction to a way of life alongside a cyclical, internalised system of conflict. If a nationwide ceasefire cannot be reached, these local actors (whom have led in upholding these systems and ways of living) are likely to be as deeply embedded in an effective response or solution to COVID-19 in Yemen as the many conflict actors themselves are.

This three-part series commissioned by PSRP is co-authored by Raiman Al-Hamdani (Researcher at ARK Group and Yemen Polling Centre) and Robert Wilson (Research Analyst at PSRP). Read Part I here. Read Part II here.

The third part of this series considers the powerful role women have played in Yemeni communities in responding to crises throughout the current conflict. The ongoing challenges women face show how navigating gender equality issues in order to support their communities, is part of a broader complex challenge of taking on prominent roles in a traditionally patriarchal society. Varying levels of equality throughout the country, however, is also a reminder that to realise women’s fullest potential as responders to COVID-19, they must be supported more widely and included more broadly in deliberations about wider socio-political challenges on a long-term basis.

This post also considers the role of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) as key responders to health crises, and the potential roles of wider sectors within Yemeni society.


Throughout the current conflict, women have displayed a profound capacity to both lead communities and support their function. In navigating the complex conflict conditions and local governance systems so far discussed in this series, women have shown themselves to be powerful local actors. But, being central to community function as first responders and caregivers, now puts women at further risk. A recent IRC report highlights a potential gender disparity in COVID-19 testing in Yemen, with 75 percent of officially confirmed cases being male and only 25 percent being female. The potential that women’s increased presence at the forefront of community response may be combined with a lack of access to testing and care, requires critical attention.

Ongoing conflict conditions have deepened discrimination and violence towards women and girls in Yemen. By March 2017, as conflict entered its second year, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found more than 2.2 million women and girls of childbearing age to be at risk in the conflict. In November 2017, cases of gender-based violencehad risen by over 63 percent compared to before the conflict. By December 2019, women had adopted more family and community responsibilities in an evolution of the established gender roles, and yet despite this, women across Yemen also reported feeling increasingly vulnerable to violence. It seems clear that as conflict deepens, women and girls have been powerful in taking on even more responsibilities; in leading family life; community advocacy; local conflict resolution and supporting humanitarian co-ordination. In doing so however, they are increasingly finding themselves in situations which put them at risk.

Across Yemen, there is a substantial diversity in how women live. In Marib or Lahij, women have described empowering and positive changes to life, as the socio-economic shifts created by conflict have advanced their role in leading family life. Throughout the conflict, women have engaged in mediation, community and humanitarian work, registered and managed Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and assisted with community health treatment and education. Conversely, other groups of women, sometimes in the same governorates, suffer the economic strain of conflict. The loss of male relatives in conflict is damaging for households led by women, 21 percent of which are headed by young women under 18 as a result. The background context to conflict conditions, is a culture which has invariably denied women an education, creating a further challenge in how easily they can lead within society. In 2019,48 percent of women were still illiterate in Yemen. Part of truly engaging women and utilising their fullest capacity in responding to COVID-19 (or indeed any crisis for Yemen) ultimately involves understanding the historical and cultural treatment of women predating the conflict.

While women have shown a capability to develop systems of daily subsistence throughout cycles of conflict, these conflict cycles have also further embedded local power structures, which in Yemen are historically imbued with patriarchal power. There is relevance in the historical and cultural experiences of women in such a highly conservative country, even prior to the onset of conflict in 2015. Badran reminds us of the constitutional laws addressing women’s equality in marriage and social life, developing alongside the reforming of the new state and the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the early 1960s. In practice, however, patterns of ongoing conflict and engrained conservative ideologies have inhibited progressive ideals for women in Yemen.

In 1974, the Family Law issued by the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (the former South Yemen) was one of the most progressive of the time in the Arabian Peninsula. It provided for women’s equal rights in marriage and family life, and for a time, these adaptations alongside concessions to Islamic conservatism made the system of living in the South arguably the most egalitarian in the Arab world. The law also shaped the longer-term expansion of women’s education and political engagement in some areas, up until the start of the most recent conflict in 2015. Conversely, the 1978 Family Law issued by the YAR (in the former North Yemen) shored up patriarchal values and encouraged male privilege in marriage and family life within what was a more conservative ruling system, bound up in patronage power systems. Gender equality was enshrined in the 1970 YAR constitution, yet this did not translate to community dialogue and public discourse; with no advocacy for such discourse being pushed actively by the Republic. Women’s unions and groups emerged in both the North and the South, yet progress was inhibited in different ways throughout the country.

The reality for women in a contemporary context, is that embedded gender inequalities are still widely felt in some way across different areas, bound up in a system of social norms which are weighted towards patriarchy and where enduring conservative values are held by fighting groups and entrenched within governance and legal systems. As current conflict has created situations which drive women into focus, women are still faced with having to navigate this system, which holds them in a comprehensively subordinate position. Female roles in community, in family, as decision makers and as responders managing crises, are all still impacted or checked by these patriarchal structures.

In assessing the role of women in different areas and communities, Adra has set out the importance of the urban/rural divide. Rural women have often been powerful actors in local economies, and have been more mobile than their urban-based counterparts. Conversely, urban women have sometimes experienced a greater level of societal prestige, but have often simultaneously been secluded and excluded from managing community affairs. While many women have navigated challenging conflict settings and taken on central mediatory or societal roles, the challenge still seems to be gaining parity across the country. Additionally, demographics are increasingly no longer constant, as the conflict prolongs. A large proportion of IDPs are themselves women and, as already set out, much of the advocacy on behalf of this group also falls to women in Yemen. The added caveat to Adra’s urban/rural divide, is the reality of the arrival of conflict and the differing governance systems it brings.

In 2018, a report on women as peacebuilders highlighted that within stronger civic structures with a more egalitarian base, places such as Marib, Taiz and Lahij had witnessed an increase of women’s prominence in mediation of tribal conflicts, taking on the role of main breadwinner and a stronger presence overall in the public space. In examining how to engage with and empower more women onto this trajectory, these more egalitarian areas draw out the question over the nexus between women’s growing position within society being truly supported by family and ruling systems, and the location of men in conflict.

Alongside these examples, there was also consensus that tension existed between men and women over these newfound roles. It could be suggested that this pre-existing tension likely now plays into the newly reported rise in domestic violence with the arrival of COVID-19, with lockdowns being imposed on already close social living spaces. Set against historical and cultural normative practices, freedom to act for communities in an uninhibited way remains an issue for Yemeni women, as reports suggest that these new responsibilities have directly resulted in a rise in domestic violence more widely.

Similarly to conflict,  the arrival of COVID-19 may further necessitate an increasingly prominent societal role for women. Violence against women more broadly is on the rise in Yemen, where honour killings have been reported as a result of the deterioration of tribal law and associated social cohesion. Further adding to these pressures, there has been an expansion of extremism and a general social, economic, and cultural stasis; with existential and direct threats including food insecurity present alongside this rise in domestic and conflict-related violence against women. Just as ongoing pressures appear to impact the role of women, they also drive the movement of men either back into the home, or away to frontlines as fighting intensifies. Either way, there will likely be further impact on women and households. Part I of this series addressed the Houthi’s use of COVID-19 to encourage fighters to remain on frontlines. This should ultimately be viewed as impacting the lives of women in Houthi-controlled areas.

Even in some conservative areas or in oppressive Houthi controlled northern areas such as Sana’a, women are still in positions of focus and are recruited into military factions by the Houthis and deployed to suppress protests held by other women. In the same areas, the Association of Mothers of Abductees continue to protest for women’s rights and against forced disappearances. While there are distinctive cultural and governance dynamics throughout Yemen, there are also some common elements to women’s experiences, which may tie into information sharing and the struggle for a more consistent level of equality across all governorates. It is clear that women can be powerful responders within communities against COVID-19, however this should also be viewed in terms of a need for finding more effective ways to support the inclusion of women in addressing central socio-political issues, on a long-term basis. Critically, part of this is understanding how to safely engage women in more oppressively governed areas.

What is undoubted is that in any humanitarian or health context in most areas of Yemen, women have continued to be powerful responders and voices of reason and solidarity. This is set with a context and with challenges that continue to constrain them greatly. It should be remembered that in dealing with pervious Cholera outbreaks, Yemeni women have been at the forefront of organising and managing substantive community health achievements through hygiene promotion, community education, and awareness raising. This has substantially reduced the risk of Cholera in the local and rural areas of governorates such as Lahij.

Civil Society Organisations

Yemen’s vibrant civil society, was once well-equipped to battle COVID-19. Now it faces dire conditions due to financial hardship and conflict. As financial aid to developing countries is withdrawn, Yemen’s Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have shifted their primary activities to humanitarian relief, which is entirely dependent on foreign actors. Countries which have been consistent investors through donor programmes, now face their own financial crises due to COVID-19, and may come under pressure to reduce aid budgets, or those budgets may drop in any case if spending is tied to GDP (as is the case in the UK) [1]. The potential for remittances being cut further, with the economic ramifications of COVID-19 becoming clearer in donor countries, is a reality that has put Yemeni civil society at greater risk of collapse.

Yemen is the world’s largest humanitarian operation. CSOs are strained further by being forced to operate in fields different to those outlined in their original mandates. This risks morphing  this community lifeline into the form of aid organisations. Diluting these distinctly separate entities in turn risks neglecting the necessary needs and wants of Yemenis in advancing their future goals, which CSOs so crucially provide. Part II of this series set out the nexus between health systems and community networks, indeed where external humanitarian support is not forthcoming, it is likely CSOs will become overburdened with care provision responsibilities.

Nevertheless, these existential threats facing youth, women, and CSOs have not halted eagerness to be active. Prior to the arrival of COVID-19 in Yemen, on the 10th April 2020, both youth and CSOs were the first to reach out to the warring actors to request a ceasefire. Initiatives led by the youth in the cities of Aden, Ibb, Sana’a and Taiz saw hundreds of young people, including young women, target vulnerable groups and provide them with illustrative informational brochures and masks. Where literacy rates are extremely low and education has been arrested due conflict, Yemenis are reassured by these initiatives. These types of initiatives exhibit the historical cooperation which exists between locals and their respective communities.

The Private Sector

There is also a clear capacity within Yemen’s private sector, which boasts a number of societally influential families. If establishing a proper philanthropic net were to be explored, this could well function as another local actor, with the potential to assist in the fight against COVID-19. On the 19th June 2020, a plane carrying the first batch of the shipment provided by the International Initiative on COVID-19 in Yemen (IICYEMEN) arrived in the interim capital of Aden in partnership with Hayel Saeed Anam Group & Co. and the World Health Organization. It included 43 tons of laboratory supplies, respirators, test kits, and PCR devices, and protective equipment. This followed a donation made by the Hayel Saeed family of over USD200,000 paid to authorities in Sanaa and Aden. Historically, the family has played a strong role in providing services and jobs, particularly in the city of Taiz. Their ongoing efforts and positive relationship with authorities throughout Yemen and other international actors may be an example for other prominent families to follow, in how they could assist with the response to COVID-19. In the absence of a strong state, it seems clear that the factions of the Yemeni private sector which remain intact, might be viable partners in the multilateral fight against COVID-19. Largely this is owed to the unique relationship that has been sustained between Yemeni society generally, and these influential families.

Cultural Figures

Also relevant is the cultural presence of Yemeni artists, actors, musicians and singers who have found fame through Yemen’s unique cultural and traditional practices. Elsewhere these figures would be considered celebrities, but due to a historical class system in the north, they are often seen as second class citizens. Singers, actors, and dancers all come from the muzayinyn class, meaning decorators and workers. But in recent years, Yemenis have become more progressive and despite the structural challenges facing these personalities, they continue to voluntarily provide content in order to help spread awareness of COVID-19. Their efforts are of critical importance in the response to COVID-19, as traditionally, poetry and lyrics have tended to resonate with Yemenis, far more than official instructional guidelines. Historically, such forms of cultural communication have also been used to settle disputes.

Musa’ed and Mesa’ada”, for example, is a radio programme that is a platform for discussing societal and cultural issues in the community. The show, in cooperation with UNICEF, was part of an awareness campaign against the six childhood diseases. The concept of the programme revolves around conversations between a husband and wife addressing the community’s concerns. The pair debate the positives and negatives in each issue in the hope of correcting common misconceptions and urging positive, societal changes. What makes this programme stand out and the reason behind its success is its simplicity in presenting topics in the Yemeni colloquial, specifically using the Sana’ani accent. This makes the characters relatable to Yemenis. The realistic conversational format has made the issues discussed more palatable and the audience more accepting. Ultimately, the show not only raises awareness – the titular stars have become cultural figures known by all generations in Yemen.

Yemeni actors and musicians, as well as popular media in general, have also been instrumental in raising awareness about COVID-19. While access to the internet and television remains difficult for most Yemenis, efforts provided by singers such as Mohamed Qahtan in collaboration with other media personalities are viable ways of information-sharing that will be sung and heard from one village to another. It is important to understand how Yemenis engage with their civil society – whether it be organisations or individuals, the dynamic remains but faces multiple existential threats through conflict and now COVID-19.

Other Actors

While this list is not exhaustive, there continues to be a collection of local actors whom, despite all these challenges, have their sway within Yemeni society. Sometimes set against the efforts of medical professionals, religious authorities have also held influence in times of crisis, including during pandemics; during which they have been seen to use misinformation for their own gain. Religious leaders in Yemen are divided on theological and political issues and, at times, have been involved in inciting sectarian violence. These religious scholars have also taken advantage of their followers in many ways, including with COVID-19, where many have taken advantage of the situation by claiming to have found and have access to various bogus cures.

In contrast to this, Sufi traditional schools that have been native to Tarim, Hadramawt since the seventh century, are most notable for their moderate attitudes. Despite facing multiple exogenous threats, including the presence of extremist groups in their local areas, including salafist and jihadists, they have held contentious debates on whether to open or close religious schools and mosques. This narrative of dialogue among religious groups continues to disappear, and could not only threaten the community’s identity, but such spiritual beliefs also pose a threat to rational scientific responses in Yemen.

Conclusions and further lines of inquiry

The result of engaging influential non-state local actors in reaching vulnerable communities has so far helped to slow the spread of COVID-19 and will continue to do so, if the variety of threats facing these groups are addressed and the right type of support from international donors and local authorities is provided. It is clear that hard medical and financial resources must arrive and circulate, however as suggested throughout this series, the pre-existing realities and complexities of governance systems and networks of influential local actors and societal sectors will shape how this plays out.

There continues to be wider questions concerning the needs of different communities, as they continue to navigate and subsist through an ongoing series of challenges, including the most recent, COVID-19. Addressing these questions is of fundamental importance in understanding both how to tackle COVID-19, and more broadly, how these actors have found ways to navigate the multifaceted conflict on a long-term basis.

Key areas of further research

  1. How could the groupings set out in this series be funded and empowered to support a COVID-19 response in a tailored way?; where such a question relates to the nuanced challenges they face; their differing capacities; or the socio-political dynamics in their area.
  2. By engaging with these groups and systems, could they be utilised to support medical professionals?
  3. Given the diverse nature of governance systems, who do people understand to be effective or influential potential responders to COVID-19 in their area of governance?
  4. Weighed against the other ongoing crises and health issues for Yemeni communities, how do different communities and governance systems view COVID-19?
  5. What are the political and ethical implications of attempting to engage with and navigate complex governance systems and fractured layers of conflict actors in addressing the divergent needs of these communities? ; this question relates to the wider suggestion that COVID-19 is already being used as a vehicle by governments and non-state actors in advancing their conflict narratives.
  6. In attempting to encourage good practice and information sharing on COVID-19 across governorate boundaries and within governorates where possible, how does this interact with growing tensions around gender roles in different areas and communities throughout Yemen?

CSOs can no longer afford to serve as humanitarian relief organisations without jeopardizing their already important roles in local communities; medical professionals must be safe guarded and supported with any immediately available resources (as of the 25th of July, 97 doctors have died so far in the fight against COVID-19); a wider interpretation of which sectors of Yemeni society can support a response is crucial, the cultural sector for example should not be relegated to the bottom of society or viewed as irrelevant in aiding responses to COVID-19 while they hold such established cultural influence over ordinary people.

It is vital that interviews are carried out with local community members and the listed actors above to understand how societal issues in Yemen play out in responding to the conflict. Further, strengthening these mechanisms to be self-sufficient will ultimately provide the medical community with the structural support they need.


[1] Experts have appeared pessimistic about the impact of the pandemic on peace processes, in part due to potentially reduced donor funds. See also our PSRP report, ‘The Impact of Covid-19 on Peace and Transition Processes: Tracking the Trends’ here.


Read the whole series: Part I | Part II | Part III

Read all PSRP COVID-19 research and reports.

Photo: © Raiman Al-Hamdani