03/24/2023, 18.02
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Houthis impose male ‘guardianship' on female aid workers, blocking their activities

In areas controlled by pro-Iranian rebels, women working for NGOs must be accompanied by a "mahram", a male guardian. This hinders their movement and impedes their work. The hunger-stricken population is paying the price in a country in dire need for aid.


Sana'a (AsiaNews) – Female humanitarian workers in northern Yemen, which is experiencing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, are increasingly hard-pressed to carry out their humanitarian work because pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, who control the area, are tightening male guardianship rules.

Reuters reports that the group has restricted the movements of female aid workers and NGO personnel, especially when the women refuse to take a “mahram”, a male relative as a guardian.

Restrictions make it hard for aid workers to travel around the country to monitor projects, collect data, deliver medical services, and provide necessities.

If women accept a guardian under pressure, their gender-sensitive work becomes more difficult and expensive.

Yemen has been the scene of a catastrophic war that has lasted for years, pitting Iran-backed Houthi rebels against the internationally recognised government supported by Saudi Arabia and its Arab coalition.

According to the United Nations, Yemen’s is currently the world's worst humanitarian crisis together with Syria.

The recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are set to re-establish diplomatic relations, could be a turning point, but so far no benefits have materialised on the ground; on the contrary, fighting has resumed in some areas.

One health project manager, who normally conducts 15-20 visits a year around the country, said that she has not made any after the presence of a “mahram” became mandatory for Yemeni female aid workers.

"I don't have a lot of men in my family," she explained, adding that some women struggle to find willing guardians because relatives are against them working. "Sometimes a woman works without informing someone in her family."

Without female staff on the ground, aid groups and international NGOs face many difficulties even for very simple operations such as handing out humanitarian aid or identity checks, which, in some cases, require removing the veil and showing visas.

Since last year, many NGOs complain that their work has been seriously damaged, harming large segments of the population, because female aid workers now need a "mahram" even just to cross provincial boundaries in the Houthi-controlled part of the country,

Although women in the Arabian Peninsula, in countries like Saudi Arabia, have endured gender-based discrimination based on well-established social, cultural and religious traditions, Yemen has never actually imposed male guardianship and even today, the practice is not required in the southern part of the country.

A spokesman for the Houthis' aid coordination body SCMCHA said they support aid delivery, but organisations should respect traditions.

“Mahram is a religious Islamic obligation and a belief culture ... Why do organisations put up obstacles to Islamic teachings and Yemeni culture?” he said.

As a result, women are forced to take boy relatives out of school, drive sick relatives just to be able to travel in a car, and put up with last-minute cancellations.

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