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More women voters but fewer women candidates

Women during a protest, Yemen, 17 September 2006. Yemeni women blame political parties for not supporting their candidature. Eight million people in Yemen live on less than  US$2 a day, making it the poorest country in the Arab world. With high illiteracy
(Mohammed al-Qadhi/IRIN)

Yemen goes to the polls on Wednesday to elect a president and two levels of local government - governorate and district - but with fewer women candidates. Analysts and Yemeni female activists blame all Yemeni political parties for this, saying that they only pay lip service to the empowerment of women.

“I find myself competent and capable enough to work,” says Afrah al-Salami, a candidate in local elections in Yemen. “I would like to make use of this energy which I enjoy, to serve the people of my society, which I love so much.”

Al-Salami belongs to Yemen’s Nasserite Unionist Party. She blames the country’s society as a whole for failing to support women in local or national politics.

Compared to some 18,760 men vying for political posts, there are only 137 women running in Yemen’s local elections, according to Elham al-Akil, head of the women’s department at the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum (SCER). Almost half are being fielded by political parties, she said, and the rest are running as independents.

“We have noticed that women’s candidacy is backsliding. In the first local elections of 2001, the number of women who ran were 150, and 38 of them won.”

Women’s groups have slammed political parties for not fielding more women, with some staging a protest march to Yemen’s presidential palace a month ago, demanding a 15 percent quota for women in local elections. “Men in Yemen want women as voters only, rather than strong challengers,” said Huriyah Mashhoor of the Women’s National Committee.

The US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) attributes the small number of women in politics to discouragement by political parties. “It is all platitudes that women are sisters of the nation and should be involved,” said NDI country representative Madrid Robin. “But there is no commitment by either side [ruling and opposition parties] to nominate women or to create closed constituencies.”

Robin says Yemeni voters would support more women candidates than political parties allow for. “Both sides are claiming they are the ones that can bring development and reform to Yemen, but if they cannot stand up to their people in nominating women, then I am wondering if they can stand up to people involved in corruption.

“Nomination of women is a place where they can show that they have the strength and courage to really stand up for local interests,” she said.

The Watan Coalition of several non-governmental organisations complains that some women have even faced political pressures to withdraw. The coalition has appealed to people to vote for women candidates to help “achieve equal citizenship.”

The Watan Coalition says the decrease of women’s representation in politics affects women’s contribution to development. In an effort to boost female candidates, the coalition have given each almost US$500 towards their election campaigns, managing to collect as much as $45,000 from Yemen’s business community for this.

Some candidates however complained that $500 was not enough. “We want them to pay for [expenses incurred by] printing presses if they are serious about supporting us,” said Nabila al-Umrah, an independent candidate.

Despite the conservative nature of Yemeni society, there is no legal obstacle preventing women from participating in elections, either as voters or candidates. But statistics point to a recent decrease in the number of women running for office, even though female voter registration has increased.

The number of women registered as voters almost trebled in a decade from 15 percent of total voters in 1993, to 42 percent in 2003. Currently, the total number of registered voters in Yemen is some 9.25 million – 5.45 million male, and 3.9 million female.

However, the number of female parliamentary candidates fell in 2003 from 42 to 11. The number of women winning parliamentary seats has also shrunk, from 11 in 1990 - in the formerly separate South Yemen parliament - to a single woman in the current 301-seat national assembly.

This time around, four women applied to run for Yemen’s presidency, but their applications failed to get the required 5% minimum endorsement by the Yemeni parliament and the Shura council – the consultative upper house of parliament. Only two women sit on the 111-seat Shura members, who are directly appointed. The two are ministers in a newly amended cabinet.

Presidential elections will be held in Yemen on 20 September, with five candidates vying for the top job. It is the first time President Ali Abdullah Saleh, candidate of the ruling General Peoples’ Congress party has faced serious opposition. He has been president since 1978 – first of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) from 1978 to1990 and became president of the new merged state of Yemen in 1990. Saleh was Yemen’s first directly elected president in 1999, winning 96.2% of the vote, but the main opposition Socialist Party was barred from the poll.

In Wednesday’s elections, Faisal Bin Shamlan is positioned as the leading opposition candidate. The Islamic Islah party, the Socialist party, the Nasserite Unionist party, the Al-Haq party, and the Popular Forces Union party, are also competing.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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