Wrapping up on the eve of International Women's Day on Tuesday, participants at a conference in Sana urged that 30 percent of the contested seats in upcoming local elections be reserved for women.
The closing statement of the two-day National Women's Conference – entitled,"30 Percent Women in the Local Elections: Translation of Words into Action" – called on politicians to bring more women into decision-making positions.
This, the statement noted, would serve to improve the situation of women in Yemen, a deeply conservative country in which females are seldom appointed to significant political positions due to longstanding cultural mores.
"The quota system is very much needed to boost political participation [by women] in all key positions," said Huryah Mashhoor, vice chairperson of the government-run Women's National Committee and organiser of the recent conference. "It will also ensure equal and fair representation of women.” Mashhoor added: “Our demand is in line with the models set by some other countries."
More than 100 participants from all over Yemen called for the appointment of women to important government positions, particularly in the ministries of planning, finance and foreign affairs. They also called for greater representation in the 111-member Shura Council, the consultative upper house of parliament.
Currently, there are only two women in the cabinet, with one heading the ministry of human rights and the other fronting the ministry of social affairs.
Conference participants also called for local and international support for election campaigns by independent female candidates in the upcoming election, scheduled for September.
According to government statistics, the number of registered female voters has almost trebled, from 15 percent of total voters in 1993 to 42 percent in 2003. However, the number of female candidates running in elections fell over the same period, from 42 percent to 11 percent. Female activists explain the discrepancy by pointing out that Islamic parties have mobilised women to vote, but have discouraged them to stand as candidates.
The number of women winning parliamentary seats has also shrunk, from 11 in 1990 [in the parliament of former South Yemen], to a single woman in the current 301-seat assembly.
As in some other Arab countries, women in Yemen are still fighting hard for their rights in a society plagued by poverty and illiteracy. "There are a lot of constraints facing women's political participation,” said Dr Bilqis Abu-Osba'a, a professor of political science at Sana University.
“This includes illiteracy and traditional tribal society, as well as a lack of earnest support from political parties, which don’t push a good number of women into leading positions."
"The quota system is the best solution for women in Yemen right now,” Abu-Osba'a added. “It will help change society's traditional image of women."
However, Abu-Osba'a pointed to the presence of a small number of women in key positions in certain political parties, as well as announcements by some of these parties in support of the quota, as indications of gradual change.
"Despite the conservative nature of Yemeni society, in which women's roles have traditionally been associated with domestic work,” she noted, “there is no legal obstacle preventing women from participating in elections.”
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