The Struggle for Enfranchising Women for Yemeni Elections "UNDP support targeted voter education for women across Yemen"

Elham Sarhan, head of the Women’s Unit at the SCER, takes charge during a meeting about voter education

SANAA, Yemen — Elham Sarhan wears a badge of courage underneath her hijab. A small bump sits atop her forehead. It is a scar that is indicative of the reality faced by women here in Yemen, and the conviction that Mrs. Sarhan brings to her work as head of the Women’s Unit at the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum.

Highlight Title

  • Women in Yemen face a myriad of complex issues barring them from partaking in the public sphere just as their male counterparts.
  • More than 65 percent of rural women are illiterate, and educating them is often empowering them.

The story of the scar is in many ways the story of the struggle for women’s rights in Yemen. Mrs Sarhan in coordination with UNDP set about a rural governorate tour last January 2012 prior to the Early Presidential Elections scheduled for February 21, 2012, in order to prepare women for the first crucial electoral event after almost 33-years of Ali Abduallah Saleh rule.  She found herself in Mahaweet with a group of women, whom at the time believed, they were meant to write-in “Ali Abduallah Saleh” on the new ballots.

Mrs. Sarhan with her soft yet commanding tone told the group that in fact their ballots would be discounted if that indeed took place and explained to the women that the Gulf Cooperation Council Agreement had planned for a one-man vote and it had been agreed that then Vice-President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi would be that candidate as the country transitioned. The women took note and thanked Mrs. Sarhan for the information and the outreach bags filled with information on what identification would be needed for the vote, and how the vote would happen.

As Mrs. Sarhan stepped out of the training session, representatives of the General People’s Congress, Saleh’s party, and incidentally Abd Rabbuh Mansour’s, approached her. They were angered by the information that Mrs. Sarhan had imparted on the women, and just as she was preparing to leave, one threw a rock at her head, injuring her and scarring her forehead with a bump that still exists to this day.  Rather than discontinuing work for the day, Mrs. Sarhan pressed on to other trainings in the area, where she led more training sessions with women.

“Nobody stops me,” said Mrs. Sarhan. “This isn’t just a job, this is a rights issue. I take these issues very personally, not just because I’m a woman, but because they are human rights as well as women’s rights issues.”

Women in Yemen face a myriad of complex issues barring them from partaking in the public sphere like their male counterparts. Women in rural areas, and particularly areas very dear to Mrs. Sarhan’s heart, face even more compounded issues. More than 65 percent of rural women are illiterate, and educating them is often empowering them. Through programs supported by UNDP, and run by Mrs. Sarhan the goal is to educate as many women as possible to seize their rights and enfranchise them for elections.

“Education is key,” said Mrs. Sarhan.

More than 4 million women are registered voters in Yemen, and more than a quarter of those voted in the Early Presidential Election of February 2012. It was much of the hard work of Mrs. Sarhan and the Women’s Unit that propelled many women to the ballot boxes. A directed campaign through the Joint Electoral  Assistance Programme and the project for Support to Elections during the Transitional Period targeted women with television, radio, billboards, bags, and outreach activities that were unseen and unheard of in previous electoral events. It was often men and women lumped into one category, Mrs. Sarhan said, and in a country like Yemen “women need to be empower through direct, rather than indirect messaging.”

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