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The cybercrime epidemic targeting Yemeni women

January 27, 2023
topic:Women's rights
tags:#Yemen, #women's rights, #gender equality, #Yemen civil war
by:Mubarak Al-Yousifi
Networks of Yemeni activists are mobilising against the growing trend of online blackmailing of women and the worsening suppression of their rights.

Yemeni activist Sarah Alwan attempted suicide several weeks ago in Taiz after being subjected to online blackmailing, and was admitted to an intensive care unit at a hospital in the city.

The incident came after six months during which Alwan repeatedly complained to the local police about the extortion, only to be ignored.

When news broke about Alwan's case, many in Yemen took to social media to express their rage at the police's inaction and called for security authorities to investigate and prosecute her blackmailer.

Security authorities in Taiz subsequently arrested the blackmailer, but released him on bail (paid by one of his relatives) after Sarah was discharged from the hospital.  

State-sanctioned discrimination

But Alwan's story is but a symptom of a much wider issue in Yemen, where cybercrime targeting women has become increasingly endemic. Blackmailers typically threaten to disclose their victims' private photos or information unless they pay up or engage in sexual acts with them. 

Alas, women in the country usually refrain from disclosing violations they've been subjected to - including electronic blackmail - due to societal norms and pressures, particularly in cases involving so-called honour.

Furthermore, certain customs and traditions prevalent in Yemen silence women's rights movements and contribute to the overall marginalisation of women in society.

Houthi rebels, for instance, have enforced a decree that allows women to travel only if accompanied by a male relative (guardian). Yemeni women must also obtain their male guardian's permission in order to marry or apply for a passport. 

Since war broke out in Yemen in 2015, the marginalisation of women has only worsened, and Yemen currently ranks 155 of 156 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, according to UNDP.

UNDP further stated that Yemeni women are less-represented in public and elected positions, holding only 4.1 percent of managerial and decision-making positions in the country.

Moreover, since the eruption of the conflict, violence against women in Yemen has gone up 63 percent, according to Human Rights Watch. More than 500 Yemeni women have been killed by their relatives in the last two years, according to Najla Al-Lessani, head of the legal department at the Yemen Women Union.

In a conversatoin with FairPlanet, Al-Lessani also said that the perpetrators of these crimes, the so-called 'honour kill,' are typically acquitted due to the absence of laws and regulations that protect women. In this regard, Amnesty International stated that Yemen is one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman in due to the prevalence of violence against women and child marriages enacted by Yemeni laws.

In fact, Abdul Hakim Al-Dubai, a lawyer and legal expert, told FairPlanet that the Yemeni Constitution contains legal articles that legitimise crimes like honour killing, child marriage and blackmail of women, and permits discrimination between women and men, which, according to Al-Dubai, drastically exacerbates violence against women.

It should be noted that Article 232 of the Yemeni Constitution allows the husband to kill his wife or one of his female relatives if he sees her committing illegal sexual intercourse (adultery). The article further stipulates that should a man be imprisoned for these acts, his jail time cannot exceed one year. 

combatting online blackmailing of women 

In the aftermath of Alwan's case, several Yemeni media organisations launched an advocacy campaign against the online blackmailing of women and demanded to enact laws protecting women and girls from such crimes.

Kaboul Absi, who participated in the campaign, told FairPlanet that the it followed an increase in cases of abuse and blackmail of women in Yemen.

Participants in the campaign had hung posters, posted short videos and uploaded photo clips as a first attempt to raise awareness of the risks of blackmail and to encourage parents to listen to their daughters who become victims of such crimes. The campaign also pressured the authorities to institute a law that punishes extortionists and provides protection for victims.

Furthermore, a group of tech-savvy activists had launched an initiative to help the victims of online blackmailing to deal effectively with their extortionists. Fahmi Al-Bahith, one of the initiative's founders, told FairPlanet that they aim to educate women about digital security.

"The initiative consists of five main persons, and more than 100 volunteers from different governorates of Yemen", he said adding that they receive more than 20 blackmail complaints per day.

The initiative tries to tackle such crimes by tracking the blackmailer's IP address and alerting the security authorities in their specific district. 

Stalled Solutions

In 2014, a draft law on combating violence against women and girls was submitted to the Yemeni Parliament by the Women National Committee and other legal experts under the supervision of the Ministry of Human Rights. But while some of the bill's amendments were approved, it was suspended due to the war.

The bill includes legislation that would punish any act or crime committed against any woman, including cases of domestic and community violence, rape and so-called 'honour killings.'     

"Those amendments aimed to alter approximately 90 articles of the Yemeni Constitution and to add 20 new articles regarding women's protection against any act of violence", Hooria Mashhour, deputy-chairman of the Women National Committee and former Minister of Human Rights, told FairPlanet.   

Furthermore, a new draft of the Constitution was agreed upon in 2013 by all Yemeni political parties at the two year National Dialogue Conference. Many articles were amended, including ones pertaining to the legal age for marriage, which was raised from 15 to 18.

It also included a set of laws that protect women from violence and cement their political, economic, social and cultural rights by guaranteeing a participation rate of no less than 30 percent in all aspects of life. Alas, the ongoing conflict halted the referendum on the new Constitution.  

Image by Andrew Svk.

Article written by:
Mubarak Al-Yousifi
Embed from Getty Images
Women in Yemen refrain from disclosing violations they've been subjected to - including electronic blackmailing - due to societal norms and pressures.
Embed from Getty Images
The ongoing conflict in Yemen has exacerbated gender inequalities and the marginalisation of women.
Embed from Getty Images
Alwan's case had led several Yemeni media organisations to launch an advocacy campaign against the online blackmailing of women and girls.
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