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Yemen: Anger as newly sworn-in cabinet excludes women for first time in 20 years 

Women activists take to the streets declaring the composition of the Saudi-backed government as illegitimate
Dozens of female activists protested in Taiz city demanding women be given positions in the cabinet (MEE)
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Taiz, Yemen

The swearing in of a new government in Yemen on Saturday has caused controversy and protests after no women were included in the 24-member cabinet, a situation that has not arisen for 20 years.

President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi swore in the new government, which was formed following a power-sharing deal brokered by Saudi Arabia last year, in Riyadh, where he is living.

The government is the first cabinet in which ministries are divided between the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Yemen's internationally recognised government.

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Yemen has been mired in conflict since a Saudi-led coalition intervened there in March 2015 to restore the government removed from power in the capital Sanaa by Houthi rebels in late 2014.

The STC, formed in 2017, is backed by the United Arab Emirates, while Hadi's government is backed by Riyadh. Both are part of the Saudi-led coalition.

The cabinet, which was first announced on 18 December, includes five members of the STC as part of a bid to end a power struggle between Hadi loyalists and the secessionists.

Both sides appeared happy with their representation in the cabinet, considering it an important development towards resolving their differences.

However, women activists and their supporters have denounced the lack of female representation, describing the exclusion as illegitimate.

'Historic letdown'

The new government said the cabinet was formed on the basis of the Outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a document drawn up in 2014, and the 2019 Riyadh Agreement.

The United Nations facilitated talks towards the Outcomes document, which included various Yemeni parties. They were concluded on 25 January 2014 and stipulated a roadmap towards the full transition of Yemen into a state that upholds democracy, freedom, rule of law, human rights and good governance.

Critics of the new government have pointed out that the Outcomes document states that women should represent 30 percent of the cabinet.

Female activists, former ministers and some serving MPs have expressed their anger at the lack of representation of women in a social media campaign, the issuing of statements and letters, and protests which took place on Tuesday.

The social media campaign highlighting the exclusion of women was launched on 11 December, seven days before the announcement of the new cabinet, under the hashtag #NoWomenNoGovernment. 

Yemen's women's movement, which includes several women associations, forums and groups, also released a statement reading: "Although we support the creation of a government as a step towards a full implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, we strongly denounce the exclusion of women. 

"This is a clear violation of the National Dialogue Conference's outcomes, the very outcomes claimed in the prologue of the cabinet decree, as one of its main references.

"It is regretful that such a political decision is taken, discarding the demands of the women's movement and its supporters from civil society pioneers. 

"We will continue our movement demanding fair representation of women and youth in positions of power.

The statement held Hadi, the new prime minister, Maeen Abdul Malik Saeed, the leaders of all political parties and entities, and parliament as fully responsible for "this historic letdown". 

Coup against the NDC

Dozens of female activists protested on Tuesday morning in Taiz city demanding women be given positions in the cabinet and pointing out that the cabinet was illegal without such representation.

Dalia Mohammed, a social activist in Taiz city who took to the streets on Tuesday, told Middle East Eye: "We can't accept the exclusion of women, and we demand 30 percent representation of women in the cabinet as per the Outcomes of the NDC."

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The protest was organised by the Ma'akum Foundation for Development and was the result of a workshop for women supervised by the foundation.

"We are the cornerstone of the legitimacy, and we are victims of this war, and we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the legitimacy and the country," said Mohammed.

"This exclusion of women from the cabinet is a coup by the government against the outcomes of the NDC, and it is a similar coup to what the Houthis did against the outcomes of the NDC."

Mohammed said she believed there were women qualified to work in any position in the cabinet, so she hoped to see such representation based on the outcomes of the NDC.

"We will continue to demand our rights, and women are stronger nowadays and we can get our rights," she said

She held the president Hadi and the political parties fully responsible for this exclusion as they nominated the ministers and no party had proposed a woman minister.

"My message is that countries can't be built without women, and the war proved that women are always there to support the community. So we demand representation in the cabinet based on the outcomes of the NDC," Mohammed added. 

Lack of regional representation

On Monday, former information minister Nadia Al-Sakkaf tweeted : "Despite our strong campaign #NoWomenNoGovernment the government was formed without women. This encouraged Yemen's Women's movement to return to the drawing board and examine our work. We now have more people involved, a long term strategy and higher goals. Live and learn!"

A day earlier, Sakkaf had also pointed out the lack of condemnation from the international community over the absence of women in the cabinet.

A female protester in Taiz holds a placard reading: 'We demand 30 percent representation for women based on the Outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference' (MEE)
A female protester in Taiz holds a placard reading: "We demand 30 percent representation for women based on the Outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference" (MEE)

In a tweet, he said: "Surprised at the international community silence towards the grave letdown of Yemeni women in the newly formed government. We recognise the importance of political progress but not at the expense of women and civil rights."

The exclusion of women is not the only issue that has led to anger towards the new government.

Last Sunday, four members of Yemen's parliament warned that they would vote against granting confidence in the new government both over its lack of female representatives and of representatives from the western Tehama region.

In a letter addressed to Hadi, lawmakers Sakhr al-Wajih, Abdul Karim al-Aslami, Mufaddal al-Abara and Shawqi al-Qadhi said they had been surprised by the marginalisation of the Tehama region and its exclusion from the new cabinet.

According to the Outcomes document, Tehama consists of the four governorates of Hodeidah, Hajjah, Raymah and Al-Mahwit, with the population making up 23 percent of Yemen's total.

Also pointing out there were 13 ministers from the south and only 11 from the north in the cabinet, Qadhi tweeted: "All that is against partnership and a blatant violation to the Outcomes of the NDC that the decision [is] based on."

'The government keeps silent'

Samar Al-Absi, a lawyer and human right activist, condemned the exclusion of women from the new cabinet, blaming Hadi, Saeed and leaders of the political parties for the move.

"I condemn the exclusion of women from participating in decision making and other political issues as it is a right for women and it is one of the outcomes of the NDC," Absi told MEE. 

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"The international agreements aim to fight any kind of discrimination against women.

"I can't say this cabinet is illegal as it was formed by a republican decision, but I can say this cabinet has lost the confidence of the majority of women or men who believe in the rights of women."

Absi stressed that people had the right to express their demands in any legal way, arguing the formation of the cabinet did not mean it was a final decision that could not be changed.

"The decision of the formation of the cabinet can be changed and reformed as a cabinet with women based on the outcomes if the NDC," Absi said.

Absi said that she expected women and their supporters to escalate their opposition in different ways until they achieved their purpose and lead some ministries.

"Although women and men have expressed their anger against the exclusion of women in this cabinet, the government keeps silent," she said.

'There are qualified women'

Hilmi al-Mulaiki, a social activist and peace building consultant, told MEE that women were excluded from the cabinet because the new government did not believe that women should be included in the decision-making process.

"There is a clear exclusion of women from the cabinet. The political parties did not adhere to the Outcomes of the NDC, and the parties who proposed the names of ministers are responsible for this exclusion."

Mulaiki said he thought that a lack of ongoing pressure from women in different provinces, and that only some activists were escalating their efforts, meant that no real pressure had formed against the government. 

As a result, he believed that the government would keep silent on the issue and ignore the women's demands.

While some defenders of the lack of women have argued that qualifications are more important than appointing men or women, Mulaiki pointed out that: "Qualification should be the criteria, and I confirm that there are qualified women who can lead ministries."

'More important issues to work on'

Galal Shaibani, a resident of Aden, told MEE that he supported the new cabinet because he believed it had solved the major disagreements between the STC and the IRG.

"We should welcome the new cabinet as it is it comprised of different parties and both the STC and the IRG welcome it. That was a major development Yemenis waited a long time for," he said.

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Shaibani said that Yemenis were looking forward to seeing the cabinet back in Aden to get back to their work and that should be the priority for now.

Regarding the lack of representation of women in the cabinet, he said it was a mistake that should be taken into consideration in the future, but he did not believes that it was a big problem.

"It was a mistake that women weren't included as ministers, but they can be included in this cabinet as deputies or managers of offices in the ministries," he said.

"I believe women should be represented, but I don't think that's a priority as the cabinet has more important issues to work on."

Shaibani stated that it was good that women activists had led a campaign to demand their rights, but he believed that was enough, and any more protests or any escalation might create obstacles for the cabinet to start its work.

"Yemeni women are educated, and I think they will stop any kind of escalation against the cabinet as their message was sent, and I hope women will be included in some high positions in the ministries.

"Men and women, we are all Yemenis, and we need solution of major disagreements and we need the cabinet to work on economic issues and some priorities that Yemenis need."