Yemen’s Quota: Success for International Community or Yemeni Women?

This article was originally published through Fikra Forum on Sept. 27, 2013

On September 15, Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi wrote his first-ever op-ed in hopes of reassuring the Yemeni people of the current political transition’s progress. The article, published in Yemen Times and available only in English, highlights the role of women during the transition and praises the status of women in Yemen. More importantly, the President indirectly endorses the proposed 30% quota; he writes, “To ensure these voices are heard, a new coalition of influential women held a press conference today advocating for national support for at least, a 30 percent quota for female [representation] in all branches of government.”

Without a doubt, women’s participation in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) has been powerful, with women representing almost 28% of all participants. Female representatives chaired three of the nine working committees. They also formed alliances within and outside the dialogue to champion women’s rights; yet in spite of these efforts, they could not reach a unanimous decision regarding the 30% quota. Regardless, it appears that Yemen’s NDC will pass the 30% quota for women in all three branches of the government, but is this success due to the persistent efforts of Yemeni women, or is it in order to make Yemen look more democratic?

While the participation of women in the NDC is impressive, the dialogue remains completely detached from the realities of Yemeni women on the ground. The transitional process, which was meant to conclude on September 18, continues to be strongly supported by the international community. This begs the question of how successful the process is likely to be in the long term if its goals are achieving international approval as opposed to true engagement and impact on the ground.

The 30% Quota 

According to the NDC process requirements, at the initial stage, an article must receive 90% of the vote among the committees in order to pass; otherwise it is sent to the Consensus Committee, which was established to oversee the dialogue process in order to maintain harmony. If the Consensus Committee modifies the article and sends it back to the committees, it must then receive 75% approval or it is returned again to the overseeing body. Finally, a modified draft must be passed by 55% of the committees. If it is not passed by the committees, the Consensus Committee and the dialogue president make the final decision on whether or not to move forward with the article.

The State Building, Good Governance, and Rights and Freedoms committees in the NDC all convened to discuss the women’s quota, which, if passed, would require 30% of officials to be women across all branches of government. The State Building Committee was the only committee that managed to pass the initial required 90% consensus, though this was only due to the fact that some members withheld their vote on the assumption that it would lower the consensus rate. The other two committees did not reach the required votes so, according to dialogue procedures, the matter was transferred to the Consensus Committee before August. At that time, it was reasonable to assume that the subject would be transferred back to the working committees where women would have to form alliances and work hard to get the required 75% consensus to pass the article.

If the women and the youth groups were to unite their votes to win consensus in the committees, they would still likely fall short with only 50%. From there, it would be extremely challenging to gain the remaining required votes, especially considering that several men who publicly endorsed the 30% quota later rejected it when it was time to vote. The traditional powers in Yemen publicly opposed the idea of a 30% quota, and even the “liberal” parties of Yemen opted for a 15% quota rather than the proposed 30%. However, after the president’s op-ed, several party members in the dialogue shifted their tone. The Consensus Committee then agreed that women should be represented in all three bodies of the government, thereby postponing the discussion of a women’s quota until the final plenary session.

Assessing the Quota

The women’s quota is based on the idea that it will improve women’s participation in governance, thus advancing women’s issues, through a top-down approach. First, this is based on the assumption that the creation of a 30% quota for women ensures that it will be implemented, when in reality, there are no guarantees that this will occur. Then, there is the assumption that the women selected or elected will put women’s rights ahead of their party’s political agenda. The real question is whether or not this quota can truly make a difference in transforming the deteriorating conditions of women’s health, illiteracy rates, unemployment, and economic status. It certainly can, but only if women politicians and government employees work hard for these rights.

Several men argue that women are not ready to have the 30% quota because too few women are qualified, either based on education or professional experience. This argument, however, is invalid. Many male officials are placed in their positions for their social connections rather than their qualifications. Another argument is that 30% is too high a quota, especially since men are the main providers for their families. This argument is also weak because figures have shown that women who make more money spend their wealth on their families. Furthermore, if Yemen embraces federalism, new local governments will lead to new positions and jobs so women will not “steal” any of the available jobs.

There are two main legitimate concerns regarding the quota: first, that the quota will not be implemented; and second, that the women selected through the quota will promote their party’s agenda rather than a women’s agenda. In either case, it is possible that the 30% quota is setting Yemeni women up to fail, but it is a risk that Yemen’s women should be willing to take.

Yemeni women have worked very hard since the early 1990s for every right that they have. If the quota is passed, then women should use it to their advantage as an opportunity to continue their good work of improving the status of women in society. The quota for women is not the only solution, but rather one of the many ways in which women can influence politics. Unfortunately, Yemeni women were seen as symbols of democratic change in the 2011 Yemeni uprising, but they have not so readily been approached as serious influencers of the political process. If the women’s quota is viewed by the international community and the Yemeni government as a primary benchmark of “success” of the current political transition without a serious commitment to supporting its implementation, the quota, like the dialogue, will merely be a process involving the upper echelons of society and will have no real impact on the reality on the ground.

Sama’a Al-Hamdani is a Yemeni researcher and writes on the blog You can follow her on Twitter @Yemeniaty.