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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Fighting Enforced Disappearance: Abductees' Mothers Association, Yemen

By Kirthi Jayakumar

Source: Abductees' Mothers Association, Yemen

The conflict in Yemen has been going on for nearly a decade, and has produced one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. One of the most enduring challenges in the conflict has been the prevalence of enforced disappearance and arbitrary arrests by pro-government forces and the Houthis. Numbering in the thousands since 2015, precious little support was available for anyone who was forcibly disappeared and their loved ones looking for them.

The Abductees’ Mothers Association in Yemen, however, achieved significant success in a situation in which no one else could make headway. In 2018, a UN-brokered peace process culminated in the Stockholm Agreement, which recognized a prisoner exchange as a key component. However, very little progress was made in this context, until the Abductees’ Mothers Association came on the scene.

The beginning

The Abductees’ Mothers Association was formed in Sana’a, in 2016. Fundamentally a Yemeni-based, women-led civil society organization, the group was created when women – as mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, grandmothers, aunts, and nieces of family members who were either forcibly disappeared or arbitrarily arrested – came together to demand the release of their loved ones.

Their work includes documenting cases of enforced disappearance and extra-judicial detention, monitoring and documenting the violation of the rights of those who have been forcibly disappeared and their families, mobilizing to generate social and official efforts at all levels to ensure the release of those who have been forcibly disappeared, working to bring those responsible for violations to justice, and supporting the families of abductees by raising awareness on their rights and providing necessary psychosocial support for them.

Source: Abductees' Mothers Association, Yemen

Challenges along the way

Even as the women fight the system, a raging conflict, and a food crisis, they go to great lengths to trace and secure the release of those who have been forcibly disappeared and abducted. They face tremendous threats to their safety and security even as they go about doing so. The women rely on social and cultural traditions, and make use of their position as Yemeni women to mediate and offer up humanitarian assistance in ways that men in their society and community cannot – and in the process, transcend statistics to lend a human face to every person who has been forcibly disappeared.

Mobilizing Across Lines

Abductees’ Mothers Association comprises women who have mobilized across fractured lines in society, and work together through independent branches across Yemen. In the seven years and counting since they were founded, this group has worked at multiple levels to address the systemic factors normalizing enforced disappearances in Yemen. Through demonstrations, protests, and sit-ins, the women draw attention to the cause on ground, and continue to work with the media to amplify their calls globally. They also work with the UN Envoy Office in Yemen, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and civil society – especially the families of abductees – to push the boundaries for change.

In their annual report for 2022, titled "Mothers at the Door of Justice 4,” the women detail the suffering endured by those who have been kidnapped, arbitrarily detained, and forcibly disappeared. Reporting on killings, abductions, arbitrary detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, and death sentences imposed by multiple actors including the Houthi group, the Security Belt Forces aligned with the Southern Transitional Council, the Security Agencies of the Legitimate Government, and the Joint Forces in the West Coast.

Securing the Largest Prisoner Release

Source: Abductees' Mothers Association, Yemen

On October 16, 2020, the Abductees’ Mothers Association celebrated a major milestone in their work. The warring parties in Yemen’s protracted conflict completed the largest prisoner exchange in the history of the near-decade long conflict. The women successfully advocated for the release of these individuals, and as many as 1056 people held by the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government were released and sent home, with support from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Following their undeterred advocacy through demonstrations, protests, and media amplification, the prisoner release was effectively a delayed implementation of the Stockholm Agreement. When the prisoners were released at Seiyun Airport, Hadhramaut, Yemen, originally, the authorities refused to allow the family members of the abductees to be part of the welcoming event. However, Dr Amat Al Salam, the President of the Abductees’ Mothers Association contacted the Deputy Prime Minister and a range of other authorities, and prevailed over them in allowing the family members of the prisoners to attend the event.

A Story of Subversion

Even as a UN-mediated peace agreement affirmed the release of abductees, forcibly disappeared individuals, and arbitrarily arrested people, implementation was made possible by the efforts of the Abductees’ Mothers Association. Their achievements in this context remains unparalleled. The endeavours of this group tell a powerful story of subverting systemic and structural violence.

First, the initiative is one where peace remains a shared priority across multiple fractures that divide Yemeni society, which is very much in throes of war. The women of Yemen have chosen to mobilize across the very lines on which the conflict is fought and normalized, and in presenting this decision in favour of strategic essentialism, they affirm that militarism and war are not values they align with.

Second, the women have used peaceful means to hold to account a system that has never hesitated to use military force against civilians. Forced disappearance, abduction, and arbitrary arrests qualify as human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and are inherently militarized mechanisms. Their use of protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, collaborations across lines at all levels, and the media all reflect on their use of peace as a means to achieve peace as an ends.

Finally, the women have demonstrated a commitment to dismantling systemic and structural violence. On the morning of the prisoner exchange in 2020, Dr Amat Al Salam addressed the crowd of newly released prisoners, telling them not to participate in the conflict, but to rather stay near their mothers and devote themselves to rebuilding their country. She also called on the officials at the event to include women in peace processes, affirming that the exceptional efforts of Yemeni women qualified them for a seat in the negotiation table.

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