by Fida Nasrallah
In February 1997 my colleague and I went on our first in a series of trips to Yemen to design and implement a voter education project aimed at increasing women’s participation in the 1997 Yemeni parliamentary elections.
This project was initiated and funded by the British Embassy in Sana’a, administered by the British Council and implemented by Electoral Reform International Services - the international branch of the Electoral Reform Society. The particular circumstances of Yemen’s very recent past -unification, multi-party elections and civil war - coupled with its position in a region not known for holding competitive elections made it an obvious choice. Thus the elections in Yemen took on particular importance as they constituted one small but significant step along the long road towards genuine multi-party competitive democracy. Hadhramaut was chosen as a region for historical reasons. Moreover, it was felt that the focus of foreign and local interest is mostly on Sana’a and the north, making the southern region an attractive area of study. Finally, women were chosen as a subject matter because 50% of the population cannot be ignored in any project aimed at encouraging democracy and the democratic process. The role that women play in raising and nurturing new generations makes it imperative to pay them the attention they are due if changing societal prejudices is ever to be achieved.
The project was fascinating but controversial - fascinating because the country’s unfortunate geographic location in a region not famous for holding competitive elections or upholding democratic traditions made Yemen’s own experiment of dabbling with democracy a challenge in itself; controversial because any involvement in the political life of a country by outside institutions is usually perceived as political intervention. Indeed, we were initially treated with some suspicion and our task was made even more difficult with the decision of some local actors to boycott the elections. Thus to be involved in a project on a topic that was ipso factorejected by some parties was seen as partisan. To be encouraging the women electorate actually to go out and vote was perceived as an intolerable interference in the affairs of a sovereign state. Although we were aware of the significance of our actions and the interpretations they engendered, we nevertheless decided to proceed as planned.
The general objectives of the project were to encourage voter participation in the elections; to develop voter awareness of the democratic process; and to improve women’s understanding of the electoral process. The more specific aims were to encourage women voters’ participation in the elections, specifically in the Hadhramaut Governorate. The way forward was to commission an attitudinal survey targeted at both men and women in order to assess the extent of people’s knowledge of the electoral process in general and the 27th April election in particular, and design and implement the voter education campaign in its light. We also decided that this should be a locally executed project managed by local project co-ordinators.
The immediate objectives of the survey were to evaluate voters’ attitudes towards women’s participation in the elections in that Governorate in particular; to create an accurate picture of local conditions; and to prepare the ground for design and launching of the voter education campaign. The more general objective of the survey was to enable us to quantify the extent and nature of the democratic transformation of the society in general.
Based on the results of the survey, a multi-pronged approach was adopted. The first approach was to produce a cassette with several components: a poem on the elections written and read in the Hadhrami dialect by a Hadhrami poet; this poem would also form the basis of a song played by a 13-piece band and sung by a Hadhrami singer. The cassette also had a dialogue where people of various cross-sections of society exchange information about the elections, stressing participation and technical aspects of the process based on the survey findings. Two thousand copies of the cassette were produced and distributed in various constituencies in Hadhramaut.
The second approach was to produce a short 30-second video emphasising two main points: that women vote in segregated polling stations staffed only by women; and that the ballot was secret. Four different versions of the video were produced, each with different lyrics and music from the song. The props for the video which included the voting booth, curtain, indelible ink, an official stamp and the ballot box were all originals provided by the Supreme Electoral Commission. The video was broadcast on national television since there is no local television in Hadhramaut.
The final approach was through the placement of adverts in the national newspapers. Each advertisement was a full page still image from the video which was accompanied by an appropriate verse from the poem which changed every day. The title of the advertisement each day was the same title as the audio cassette and song.
It was hoped that this unified approach would help maintain a link between the components of the project. By using the song in all the various formats we hoped to create a strong identification with the campaign and a unifying theme throughout.
It was encouraging to know that almost all of those questioned had heard the tape and understood the message. The tape was apparently played on loudspeakers during many electoral rallies, distributed and exchanged amongst friends, and played in cafes. The television clip was not as widely viewed as hoped as competition for air time was intense in the immediate pre-electoral period. The newspaper ads proved very popular. The simplistic but strong imagery of the adverts made a very stunning image and tied in well with the music and video cassettes.
In a wider sense, the participation of women in the election in the South was dependent upon a number of variables such as the political boycott and social constraints on their participation. But probably the most important impediment to real female participation in the electoral and political processes in Yemen is the pervasively high rate of illiteracy which serves as a psychological and physical obstacle to participation. Indeed, from our own observations of the voting process in the Wadi Hadhramaut, women were not only largely ignorant of the process - struggling to comprehend the ballot paper and how to fill it in - but were not in possession of the skills needed to participate independently, making them susceptible to undue influence and monitoring by interested parties.
A longer term effort to educate the people on the mechanics of voting needs to be undertaken for the next elections. Democracy in Yemen is still embryonic and operates in a region which not only lacks a western-style democratic tradition but is largely hostile to it.
Thus whilst quantitative participation in the electoral process is doubtless necessary in order to increase the legitimacy and relevance of the electoral process, in the middle and long terms an increase in qualitative participation is of utmost importance to Yemen in order to strengthen the democratic process. Key to this development is the need to address illiteracy among both men and women as well as to explain to the rural population in particular how national representation is able to translate into tangible practical results for the population as a whole. It is in the main the misunderstanding of that essential point in democratic representation that is responsible for the apathy regarding participation in the elections.