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Yemen: Huthis 'suffocating' women with new requirement for male guardians

'This restrictive rule constitutes a form of gender-based discrimination' © Graphic: Amnesty International

Since April ‘mahram’ requirement means women need male guardian to travel 

Discriminatory measure is impacting humanitarian aid deliveries in war-torn country

It ‘entrenches the discrimination faced by women in Yemen on a daily basis’ - Diana Semaan

The Huthi authorities in Yemen must end their “mahram” (male guardian) requirement which bans women from travelling without a male guardian or evidence of their written approval, Amnesty International said today.    


Since April this year, tightened Huthi restrictions have hindered Yemeni women from carrying out their work, especially those required to travel. 

The restraints imposed by the “mahram” requirement also apply to female humanitarian workers who have struggled to conduct fieldwork, directly impacting access to aid for Yemenis, particularly for women and girls.

Though not part of Yemeni law, the “mahram” requirement is being enforced by the Huthis through verbal directives. Since April, the Huthi authorities have increasingly insisted on it to restrict the movement of women across areas they control in northern Yemen, including Saada, Dhamar, Hodeidah and Hajjah governorates, and Sanaa.

Amnesty interviewed five women activists and members of local organisations who were subjected to the restriction when attempting to travel for work between April and August.

In early August, multiple car rental companies told Afrah*, 36, that she could not rent a car to travel from Sanaa to Aden governorate for work unless she travelled with a male guardian. She told Amnesty:

“My husband had to take leave from his work, and I had to take my daughter out of her school so that I could meet the ‘mahram’ requirement and be able to travel to Aden for my work. We had to submit to the authorities copies of our IDs, the family record that proves we are married, and a birth certificate for my daughter to be able to rent a car and travel. The ‘mahram’ restriction gives men more control over our lives and allows them to micromanage our movement and activities. They are suffocating us.”

In July, Noura*, 48, was blocked from renting a car to travel unless she could provide written approval from her younger brother. “My brother, who is supposed to be my ‘mahram’, is ten years younger than me," she told Amnesty. “When he gave me his written approval note, he apologised that he had to do this for me.”

In April, Eman*, 35, was travelling in a rental car from Sanaa to Aden governorate when she was stopped at a security checkpoint in Sanaa for six hours. Despite showing written approval from her ‘mahram’, a security officer verbally harassed her and threatened to physically assault her if she got out of the car. She told Amnesty:

“The man in charge of the checkpoint was yelling at me. He said, ‘where is your mahram? Aren’t you ashamed of travelling alone? How did your parents allow you?’ … Then, he took all my documents and my bag, and asked me where I was going and if I worked with an NGO … He said, ‘I will not let you go without a problem’.”

According to local rights organisation Mwatana for Human Rights, Huthi restrictions on women have grown increasingly repressive since 2017. Women and girls have been denied access to reproductive health care, banned from working in some governorates, forced into gender segregation in public spaces, and required to follow the ‘mahram’ restrictions.

Under international humanitarian law, all parties to the armed conflict in Yemen, including the Huthis, must facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian assistance to civilians in need and ensure the free movement of humanitarian workers.

Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Acting Middle East Deputy Director, said: 

“The Huthi de facto authorities must immediately lift the ‘mahram’ requirement. 

“This restrictive rule constitutes a form of gender-based discrimination and entrenches the discrimination faced by women in Yemen on a daily basis. 

“Yemeni women urgently need to be able to move around the country freely in order to work, to seek healthcare and to give or receive humanitarian aid.

“The international community should pressure the Huthis to stop imposing ‘mahram’ restrictions on women. 

“Yemen is already facing a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, and there is now a very real risk that women and girls will stop receiving aid if women humanitarian workers continue to be banned from travelling without a male guardian.”

Impact on humanitarian programmes

According to seven experts with knowledge of the humanitarian situation and a recent UN report on humanitarian access in Yemen, the ‘mahram’ requirement became prevalent across Huthi-controlled areas in the second quarter of 2022, making travel for female Yemeni staff from humanitarian agencies extremely difficult and leading to aid deliveries being cancelled. The experts told Amnesty that women aid workers without a ‘mahram’ for travel purposes are increasingly unable to work. This has particularly limited women and girls’ access to desperately needed aid and healthcare services which are only provided by female aid workers. 

*Names changed to protect identities.

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