Published: 17:59, December 16, 2021 | Updated: 18:45, December 16, 2021
Middle East women bear social brunt of sanctions exacerbated by conflicts
By Jan Yumul in Hong Kong

An Afghan woman wearing a burka exits a small shop in Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec 5, 2021. (PETROS GIANNAKOURIS / AP)

Unilateral sanctions imposed on some countries in the Middle East have inadvertently placed women in greater harm, ultimately derailing the region's progress in upholding women's rights and welfare, experts say.

On Dec 8, the United Nations appealed anew to governments and countries that are imposing sanctions to reconsider their stand, saying it is "harming women, children and the vulnerable groups" despite existing exemptions.

"We need to take into account that women become very vulnerable when we speak about everything, which (includes) family planning, (the) delivery of babies, and the raising of babies," said Alena Douhan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures on the Enjoyment of Human Rights.

We need to take into account that women become very vulnerable when we speak about everything, which (includes) family planning, (the) delivery of babies, and the raising of babies.

Alena Douhan, UN Special Rapporteur

These entail situations "when social planning programs like the provision of contraceptives, the availability of tests and medical assistance, disappear in the country", Douhan said.

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She added the impact of the unilateral sanctions prevents governments from guaranteeing the basic needs of their respective populations and "make the people dependent on national or foreign humanitarian aid", as well as force states to beg for such aid "all the time".

The sanctions often include fuel embargoes, which affect crucial trade and in turn, deprive targeted countries from maintaining basic necessities including food, water, medicine, medical care and electricity supply.

On Dec 7, the US Department of Treasury updated its sanctions list on Syria, Iran and Uganda, designating “15 actors across three countries in connection with serious human rights abuse and repressive acts". Iran, for example, has billions of assets frozen in other countries like Japan and South Korea.

Dina Yulianti Sulaeman, director of the Indonesia Center for Middle East Studies, said women in the Middle East have the same rights and capacities for advancement in education and careers "as any woman in the world".

"Unfortunately, several countries in the Middle East have been hit by war and sanctions so that these rights and capacities cannot be exercised. Conflicts or embargoes will keep women trapped in the difficulties of meeting basic needs instead of thinking about progress for themselves," Sulaeman said.

Abdulghani Al-Iryani, a Yemen expert who previously worked with the UN in the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, said that women in the country are at a disadvantage when getting their share of humanitarian assistance as they are considered "less influential" than men.

"The end result of sanctions is that it weakens the negotiating position of women vis-a-vis people who control humanitarian assistance who happen to be men. Therefore, it makes them more vulnerable to various types of abuses," said Al-Iryani, who was also with the UN Development Programme mission in Hodeidah in Yemen.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, since civil war in Yemen broke out in 2015, there have been more than 20,000 civilian deaths and injuries while more than four million people have been forced to flee. Three-quarters of internally displaced Yemenis are women and children, while one-in-four displaced families are headed by women.

Asked whether the sanctions could be considered a form of gender-based violence for inflicting economic suffering on women, UN Special Rapporteur Douhan said the sanctions should not be interpreted as something that is exclusively gender-based or gender-focused.

"In reality, the unilateral sanctions are very diverse. And different types (of sanctions) have different status and different problems from the perspective of the international law," Douhan said, noting the different circumstances between sectorial sanctions, sanctions on former officials and targeted sanctions against companies.

But Sulaeman of ICMES said women and children are always "the most prominent victims" in such situations and that they have suffered greatly from these sanctions.

Amina Khan, director of the Centre for Afghanistan, Middle East and Africa at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad in Pakistan, said that wherever there is conflict, a humanitarian crisis follows automatically. The first victims of conflict or sanctions are "always the women of the house", the children and the elderly.

She added that there is a disparity when it comes to the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East, when it comes to women's rights and empowerment.

"On one hand, you see countries that really do honor and respect women's rights … and give them their due share and place in the society," said Khan. "But there are other areas in the region that totally discard the role of women."

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In Palestine, for example, basic needs for survival are not being provided to women, not only because of the sanctions, Khan said, but also because of the ongoing territorial dispute and geopolitical issues.

UNICEF is appealing for $39.5 million in 2022 to provide, among other urgent needs, access to primary healthcare in UNICEF-supported facilities for 108,000 children and women in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, where around 2.1 million people need humanitarian assistance.

"Women empowerment does not necessarily mean giving them a voice. It actually means giving them their basic rights, their basic needs," said Khan.