Photo: A Sana’a market seller
How is the political chaos in Yemen affecting everyday work and life for ordinary people – and what does it mean for the future? We asked our country representative in Yemen, Abeer Al-Absi, for an insider view...
“Yemenis dream of a better future without corruption. We want to take part in the decisions that affect our lives, we want to overcome inequality and poverty,” says Abeer.
Abeer was caught in the thick of gunfire and shelling last week during a worrying escalation of violence. Despite this, she is remarkably hopeful of a positive outcome.
“The atmosphere here is one of excitement and hope,” she says. “People have nothing to lose. They are poor, many don’t have jobs, they don’t have access to healthcare and education, things need to change – but what has happened in Egypt has given people hope,” she says.
People's participation is key
And she believes civil society organisations are playing a key role in the development process. "Yemen is at a critical phase of its democratisation process," she says.
"Yemen’s current and future democratic stability largely depends upon being able to accommodate civil society organisations and citizen participation in policy development. I think the role of civil society now is to influence government policies and decisions in favour of poor and marginalised people."
Progressio has been working with local civil society organisations in Yemen for 37 years and Abeer believes that this long-term involvement has had a lasting impact by making sure ordinary people, including the poorest and those traditionally marginalised by mainstream Yemeni society, have the skills they need to ensure their voice is represented in local councils – a step that is key for Yemeni people to be able to realise their dreams.
“Involving local people and communities in decision-making is the only path to a better future for Yemenis,” says Abeer.
Youth and women have a voice
In the past, says Abeer, young people, especially young women, have not had any legitimate participation in political decision-making processes, governance and civic bodies. "Deep-rooted cultural and traditional practices and beliefs undermine and discourage women from participating and voicing their opinions in public spheres," she says.
However, young people and women are now standing up and taking part. "You can see women participating in both pro- and anti-government demos, raising their voice and opinions on what they think the Yemeni future should look like," she says.
"Also, you can find them on the TV debate programmes, talking freely on different issues that affect their lives. All this will strengthen women's political participation in society and will promote the concept of gender in Yemen."
Despite severe disruptions during the current period of unrest, our work continues through local staff and partner organisations. For example, in Hodeidah, away from the most intense conflict, a Progressio development worker has been supporting Islamic religious leaders to teach young people about democracy and equip them with the skills and values required to bring about the change needed in their communities.
“Young people feel a huge responsibility to overcome poverty and represent their communities,” explains Abeer.
“Women also have a strong voice now. They are putting forward their opinions about what a new Yemen should look like through social media.”
Support is essential
Abeer describes the extra pressure that the current unrest is putting poor people under. A tanker of water now costs $50 – a price that only the wealthiest can afford. And fears abound that extreme poverty and unemployment could leave space open for extremist groups such as Al Qaida to thrive.
“I feel disappointed when I hear my country described as a ‘fragile state’ or as ‘failed’,” says Abeer.
“Yemeni people are kind and smart, we have a lot of resources and we aim for a better country. Support from the international community is essential and it needs to be long-term because community reform is a long-term process."
“Organisations like Progressio that can work alongside us, sharing skills and technical expertise, are more valuable than ever in this time of uncertainty.”
Photo of Sana'a market seller © Cathy Scott/Progressio. Photo taken in March 2010. Interview with Abeer Al-Absi by Esther Trewinnard.