The long walk to justice: seeking fair resolutions for family problems in Yemen

Despite the abundance of sectarian violence, radical terrorism, dysfunctional politics and deepening humanitarian crises – life in Yemen goes on. Electricity and water is off for most of the time but the people have learnt to adapt to this. The fortunate, the one that can afford it, use power generators and install water tank on their roofs. Despite the sometime desperate local situation, children still go to school. The traffic in Sana’a and the other big cities is as jammed and smelly as ever and the markets are thriving ad bustling with buyers and sellers. Although the people are afraid and concerned about their security and about the future of the country, life carries on.

Our latest report Family, justice and fairness in Yemen: the impact of family problems on Yemeni women discusses the family justice needs of women in Yemen. In 2014 we interviewed 3000 randomly selected women and men from 3 governorates – Sana’s, Taiz and Aden. A stunning 94% of the respondents in the survey reported that in the last 4 years they had to deal with one more serious and impactful justice needs [check out our full report ]. One out of 7 of these problems (14%) were related to the family domain. As everywhere else the people of Yemen need protection and certainty for their family relationships.

Almost half of the family problems are about divorce and separation. Before the study different legal experts were arguing that Yemeni women barely encounter justice problems. To the opposite the data shows that women experience justice needs around divorce and separation almost 3 times more often than men. We heard many stories about the challenges that divorce or separation imposes on women.“Our neighbor had a problem with her husband. He was working abroad and whenever he came back tensions arose. For a long time she considered herself a slave in her husband’s paternal house, left without money and treated badly.

After many years of struggling the woman decided to go to her father’s house and then she went to court and asked for divorce but the judge did not see this as justification for divorce. The divorce petition was rejected. Then she decided to pursue a khul’, which is a woman’s right to abandon her husband, where she can demand from the judge to give her divorce. But she will lose the dowry. So at the end she had to choose between continuing the same life or going for a khul’ and losing her only capital. At the end she chose to stay at her father’s house.”

In these and millions of other cases Yemeni women need protection from the law for their family relationships. The access to such mechanisms, however, is difficult. Only 15% of the women who report serious family problems have ever consulted a lawyer. Most Yemeni women have to rely in such situations on family, friends and sheikhs. It is not difficult to imagine how these sources of advice and dispute resolution apply and reinforce existing patterns of inequality and exclusion. As a result we see that many women say that the family problems left very severe or severe effect on their lives; many experienced violence.

Our index of the costs and quality of the paths to justice shows that the interviewed women see the existing processes as rather dysfunctional in terms of their process and outcome fairness. These and many other findings can be found out in HiiL’s report Family, justice and fairness in Yemen: the impact of family problems on Yemeni women.