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Women and girls, agents and victims in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen

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Switzerland and Sweden co-hosted a hybrid high-level pledging event on 16 March for those hit by the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. UN Secretary General António Guterres launched the event. On behalf of Switzerland, President of the Swiss Confederation Ignazio Cassis has pledged CHF 14.5 million to further humanitarian aid efforts.

As a result of the armed conflict that broke out in 2015, Yemen is now facing one of the world's worst humanitarian crisis, leaving over 20 million people, two thirds of the Yemeni population, in need of humanitarian assistance. The country is also in the midst of a major migration crisis, counting close to 4 million internally displaced people. This has had a catastrophic impact on the availability of food, education and healthcare. The country's economic decline and institutional collapse have weakened all public services and made many basic necessities scarce. There is practically no healthcare system, as medical facilities have also been targeted in the fighting. Two million children are deprived of schooling and over a third of the country's districts are facing the threat of food insecurity.

A long-term commitment

Members of the international community, which is providing financial support for the humanitarian response to the crisis in Yemen, joined the virtual pledging event co-hosted by the governments of Sweden and Switzerland and organised in conjunction with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

Switzerland's commitment is a long-term one; this year, CHF 14.5 million will be provided to promote humanitarian aid efforts in Yemen. Switzerland's contributions over the past six years amount to CHF 86.9 million in total. Taking part in the event from Bern, President Ignazio Cassis also expressed his determination to help those affected by the crisis in Yemen: «It is therefore high time that we – the international community – step up our efforts. We need to ensure sufficient funding for the humanitarian response. And we must ensure that our contributions reach those in need as quickly as possible,» he explained.

"It is therefore high time that we – the international community – step up our efforts. Not only do we need to ensure sufficient funding for the humanitarian response. We must also ensure that our contributions reach those in need as quickly as possible."

The pledging event aims to raise awareness of the worsening living conditions in Yemen. Beyond that, this year's focus was also on the role of women as agents of change in the crisis in Yemen.

Women and girls confronting the crisis

Households headed by women are generally more vulnerable to food insecurity and face greater difficulties in accessing humanitarian assistance, particularly outside their communities. They have become much more vulnerable as safeguards protecting them from violence have been weakened by the seven years of conflict.

Sweden and Switzerland co-organised a side event dedicated to this issue: 'Yemeni Women in the Humanitarian Response: Challenges, Needs and Opportunities'. This event took place a few hours before the pledging event.

The high-level discussion sought to draw attention to the essential role of Yemeni women as key players in bringing about a paradigm shift in the crisis; humanitarian suffering in Yemen can only be alleviated if women there are included meaningfully in the humanitarian response.

Swiss NGO Medair's work furthering access to safe water for mountain communities

Access to safe drinking water is a growing problem for many people in the highland communities of Yemen. Like the city of Dahle in Al-Dhale'e Governorate, their only source of water has been unsafe for over 15 years. And the situation has certainly not improved since the crisis began in 2015.

Fluoride levels ten to fifteen times higher than the safe limit have been detected. Families have only two options: to spend a large part of their income to bring in safe clean water from distant villages or to drink the local water and risk getting an illness. For the vast majority, who are unemployed, only the second option is feasible.

Consuming water with high levels of fluoride over long periods of time often has adverse effects on bone tissue, and children whose bones and teeth are still growing are most vulnerable to these risks. Poor nutrition can amplify deformities. All of this drives Swiss relief organisation Medair to help those affected in these mountain communities. Its work, which started several years ago, is supported by funds from donors conferences such as those held in Geneva in recent years.

An old well was recently identified whose water reportedly contains healthy levels of fluoride. Medair is currently working to repair the well and provide clean water to the community. But its work is far from over.

How is Switzerland responding to the crisis?

The crisis in Yemen is manmade, and while that is distressing, it also means that a solution can be found. Like Yemen, a number of other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are also in the grips of major armed conflicts, causing a sharp rise in poverty and social inequalities and partially or totally eroding democracy and the rule of law. For that reason, the entire region became a priority area in Switzerland's Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23.

Switzerland enjoys a good reputation in the MENA region. As a neutral country with expertise in good offices, Switzerland currently plays a key mediation role in international disputes in the region and helps to maintain an open dialogue between the parties to conflicts. In Yemen specifically, Switzerland is supporting the UN-led peace process.

In Switzerland's MENA Strategy 2021–24, there are two priorities for work in Yemen. Switzerland will promote efforts to restore peace and security and to ensure respect for human rights, while also working to reinforce measures to protect the civilian population. Switzerland will pursue its humanitarian work in the areas of water, sanitation, hygiene and food security. Finally, it will pursue its efforts to have all parties to the conflict respect international humanitarian law.