Women in Yemen are facing an “unprecedented” pattern of abuse in Houthi held areas, activists and human rights groups say.
The severity of the five-year conflict has increased gender based violence as women and girls become the most vulnerable to exploitation.
“This is the worst, darkest age for Yemeni women to be living in,” Rasha Jarhum, Yemeni human-rights defender and founder of the Peace Track Initiative, told The National.
Prior to the start of the war, women did not have “laws or institutions to protect them” but instead had moral and tribal codes that guarded them from abuse, Ms Jarhum said.
However, because the pressures of war these protections have faltered.
A UN panel of experts earlier this year found a Houthi network that operated to oppress women who opposed the rebel group.
Mass arrests of women started after the Houthi appointment of Sultan Zabin as head of the Sanaa criminal investigation division in 2018, said the panel’s reports.
Their abuses may amount to war crimes, the report said.
The Houthi cells trained women fighters, named “Zainabiyat”, to abuse women who oppose them. “This is the first time in the history of Yemen we see something like this,” Ms Jarhum said.
There has been an increase in arbitrary detention of women due to their political affiliation, humanitarian or peace building work.
Ms Jarhum said the initiative received a school principal who was detained for no reason.
Prioir to the war women were considered a “redline” and were respected by the community, Muna Luqman, founder of the Food for Humanity Foundation and a prominent human rights activist, said.
“This is not the case now, there are Houthi women thugs named the ‘Zainabiyat’ who are in charge of collecting information and assaults and many obscene acts,” Ms Luqman told The National.
What women in Yemen are enduring is a “disgrace to humanity” Ms Luqman said.
Women’s ordeals are doubled than men’s because of the stigma by Yemen’s conservative society, which is often used against them, Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher of Human Rights Watch said.
“It’s utterly appalling that women are exposed to these brutal acts of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, sexual violence and the social stigmatisation,” Ms Nasser told The National.
Ms Nasser said the government must exert its effort to “combat perceptions of shame or guilt” that women survivors endure.
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An investigation by the Associated Press released last week found that hundreds of women were abducted by the rebels and held in secret prisons.
The Houthis deny the claims, but six women who escaped to Egypt told AP of their trauma.
Samera Al Huri, 33, who survived three months in a rebel detention, said “many had it worse” than her.
Ms Al Huri was abducted in July 2019 after she rejected becoming an informer on anti-rebel activists.
She said masked officers with Kalashnikovs took her “as though I was Osama bin Laden.”
Ms Al Huri was imprisoned in Dar Al Hilal, an abandoned school on Taiz Street, in Sanaa.
Some nights Mr Zabin took “young, pretty girls” out of the school to rape them, she said.
Ms Al Huri was brave enough to come out in the open although her testimony was risky.
“There are girls still in prison,” she said. “When I try to sleep, I hear their voices. I hear them pleading, ‘Samera, get us out.’”
Between 200 to 350 women are currently detained in the capital but the Yemeni Organisation for Combating Human Trafficking says the figures are likely to be higher.
Bardis Assayaghi, a poet who wrote about Houthi repression, said she was abused so violently that she had to get eye surgery after her release.
Ms Assayaghi said about 120 women held in the Dar Al Hilal, “schoolteachers, human rights activists, teenagers.”
Houthi authorities need to take immediate measures to end those brutal acts,” Ms Nasser said.
“Allies to the Houthis need to do all they can to pressure the Houthi authorities to end those human rights violations,” Ms Nasser said.
Yemen has been embroiled in a civil war after the Iranian-backed rebels seized Sanaa in late 2014, and forced the internationally recognised government out.
The war has tipped the country to the brink of famine.