It’s 6 a.m. and the sound of air strikes wakes her up with a start. She rushes to the window, which is shielded in plastic to protect the 110-strong-staff living in the UN compound from shrapnel. She breathes a sigh of relief. “In the beginning it was very scary,” says Dina Zorba, long-time gender equality activist and UN Women’s first Representative and Senior Gender Advisor in Yemen. Originally from Jordan, she has worked for many years in Iraq and is no stranger to conflict. “After a while you get to know the sounds. You can estimate the distance,” she states. Air strikes happen daily.
She turns on the television to catch up on the latest news, flipping between channels,hoping to find out what happened at the Security Council, half a world away in New York.
A former journalist, Zorba’s inspiration to work as an activist came from covering freedom of expression and women’s rights issues in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt, and she started consulting in 2005, working with various UN agencies, including UN Women and its predecessor, UNIFEM.
Done with the news search, she checks the text message from UN security: ‘The car will move at 8.15’. “They need to vary the time we leave every day for security reasons,” she explains, “When I first arrived the situation wasn’t as bad.” Zorba landed a position as UN Women’s first Representative in Yemen in December 2014; in March 2015,separatist forces launched an offensive and war ensued.
“They evacuated us and, after a few weeks, they decided that they would only let a small number of the hardcore humanitarian agencies back in,” she shares, adding, “I had to work virtually from Amman for a few months, which was hard since we need to work closely with women and the civil society. But I kept fighting. I didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. The main two pillars of our work here in Yemen are humanitarian and political participation in the peace process, which are very sensitive. If you don’t have people together in the same room, you risk misunderstandings and misinformation. I knew we wouldn’t be able to do this if we weren’t physically here.”
By August, Zorba had convinced the UN Country Team to allow UN Women to return, as one of only a dozen agencies operating on the ground. “I was able to prove that we are essential and we are doing a good job,” she says, adding, “We ensure that gender is taken into consideration in all of the UN’s work, which means working closely with partners to make sure that women’s voices are heard, that they are part of the decision-making process, and that women are served well by the humanitarian response.”
Ready for work on time, in the lobby of the former hotel where she lives, Zorba greets the four UN colleagues she’ll ride to office with today. They pile into the armoured UN car and pass multiple checkpoints. “This same drive used to take one-and- a-half hours before the war because of traffic,” she remarks, “Now, it takes just 20 minutes. There aredays when it’s freakish how empty it is.”
As the convoy passes a gas station, Zorba notices the same cars in line since yesterday,stretching three kilometres down the road. Fuel shortages are to blame. She stares out of the window at the rubble around the once-glorious mosques and other bombed buildings. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimates, more than 8,000 people have been killed in Yemen since March 2015. “You never know when it’s going to happen,” she reflects. “Could it be me next time?”
The convoy pulls in to the small UNDP compound.
Zorba supervises three national staff, one administrative and two programme officers –one of whom is working on political participation and peace-building and the other on a joint humanitarian project with UNDP, to track gender-based violence and provide psychosocial services.
She says one of the biggest challenges she faces in her work is diffusing the anger and mistrust. “Now Yemenis don’t trust each other and they don’t trust us. So our work on integrating women in the peace process is really hard because they need to sit together,” she elaborates. Primary on her agenda is a meeting with a group of 20 local women leaders to organise an upcoming workshop on the peace process.
Gradually nurturing an environment for women to meet and reach common ground – by organising workshops and facilitating dialogue in neutral spaces – Zorba’s team helped establish a Women’s Pact for Peace and Security in October 2015. With 50 members and counting, it has succeeded in ensuring that women are involved in the peace process, that the women’s agenda is included, and that neither will be sidelined.
Despite the intermittent Internet connection, Zorba manages to send some emails to partners about the two women that will sit on delegations to the peace negotiations, as a result of the lobbying of the Secretary-General’s Envoy to Yemen and UN Women. Undoubtedly, it’s a huge achievement. “In a very short period, we’ve been able to do so much,” she says, with satisfaction. Such results are fast for this line of work.
“Our work on the soft component can be frustrating because you don’t see results immediately,” Zorba goes on, “One might not see results for another three to five years.But as an expert on this for many years, I can see it happening – I see the indications that this is working! The pace of the work, the support we’re getting from the UN system… It’s just the beginning. It might not seem influential to stopping the war, but it will be! We’re making sure that these women’s voices are heard. This is our mission.”
She picks up the phone to call a partner. A few months ago, when making a similar call, a colleague at the Yemen Women National Committee had shared that her family member had been killed, and started crying inconsolably. “I didn’t think I would cry,but I did,” recalls Zorba, whose own two grown up children are in university in Jordan. “I forgot about talking about work and tried to comfort her.”
At around 8 pm, as a long, hectic day is winding down she grabs her walkie-talkie and checks in with the warden. “One of our colleagues from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was kidnapped last month,” she says. “I’m actually scared of kidnapping more than the bombings.”
On the drive home, Zorba reflects on her mission. Despite the security risks, emotional tribulations and political challenges, she finds comfort in knowing that they are making a difference through the changes she sees. “Of course, there are days when there are setbacks,” she points out, “Sometimes it really hurts because you can’t fix it. We need the people to fix it. I’m not the decision-maker; I’m here to help them decide. This is what keeps me going. One knows that the results are not simple and they’re not small.
They’re the blocks that are going to lead to the big thing.”
This article is part of UN Women’s ‘Step It Up for Gender Equality’ campaign