The Yemeni Women’s Union (YWU) started as a grassroots organisation to support women in Aden and Hadhramaut. Following Yemen’s first General Conference on Women in July 1974, Aisha Muhsin al-Khaili, a prominent feminist, was elected the union’s first female president. An active member of the resistance to the British occupation of Yemen, she dedicated her life to the empowerment of women and girls before her death in September 2021.
A Second Home
Today the YWU’s mission is to help women eliminate all forms of gender-based discrimination so they can contribute to Yemen’s economic, social and cultural development. Numerous projects are carried out in the regional branches of the union according to need.
For Fatima Belhimer, a former MP and one of the union founders, the YWU has served as a giant umbrella group for Yemeni women.
“It’s been a second home for us,” she said. All work was voluntary from the outset, she added, and it bore fruit. From South Yemen’s independence in 1967 until the 1990s, the YWU held 11 seats in the House of Representatives and local councils (within the framework of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen). It also maintained decision-making positions in the education and health sectors.
These 11 seats were integrated into the House of Representatives in the Republic of Yemen after the unification of north and south in 1990. No women hold seats in today’s Yemeni parliament.
Solidarity Through Structure and Training
The YWU’s membership of 1.4 million is spread over 20 main branches in various regions and 165 women’s activity centres. Up to 500 women benefit from the services provided by the YWU annually.
“The Yemeni Women’s Union is like a second home for us.”
Elections for the union’s president and branch leaders are held every four years. The branches’ structures are patterned after the YWU’s executive office in Sana’a, with directors for financial management, legal affairs, women’s development, research, health and social management, projects, media and culture.
One project, supported by the EU and the GIZ, Germany’s development agency, promotes campaigns on the prevention of gender-based violence and the importance of women’s contribution to peaceful coexistence in Aden and Taiz. The YWU aims to raise public awareness through media influencers and social activists.
The second phase of the project provides safe spaces-shelters free of violence and emotional distress – to train over 150 women between Aden and Taiz in skills such as sewing and hairstyling, as well as the production of candy and incense.
“We are currently at the stage of empowerment where 80 women are provided with supplies to start their new professions,” said Sawsan al-Shadadi, a YWU project officer.
In one YWU safe space west of Taiz, Balqis Abdullah*, 35, was offered psychological support sessions for five months. In 2019 and 2020, she attended three-month training courses in sewing, which she later took up as a profession.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today had it not been for the safe space and support programme that helped me recover from a crisis I suffered because of the war,” she said.
Through her perseverance and backing of the Yemeni Women’s Union, Abdullah became an accredited sewing instructor, adding to her qualification as a teacher in the second semester of 2021.
“After years of suffering, I am now able to support my family and children,” she said.
Despite the diversity of donors, all projects driven by the Yemeni Women’s Union focus on protecting and empowering women, enhancing their presence in public life.