In May, a community group in Taiz, Yemen, implemented a locally-led project called “Light it Up” to address the lack of street lighting and insecurity. Through a consultative and participatory process that encouraged local action, the group – supported by Saferworld – worked to install solar panels and lights in areas that have been affected by the conflict.
Since the beginning of the conflict in Yemen in March 2015 Taiz has suffered from intensive ground fighting between various warring groups which severely impacted the daily lives of its residents. Muthafar, where Saferworld and partner The National Organisation for Community Development (NODS) has been supporting community action to prevent conflict and make communities safer since 2012, is a crowded area in the centre of the old city of Taiz.
While it has been less intensely affected than some areas of the city by the fighting, it has suffered from a shortage of government services, including necessities like security and electricity. The local community have experienced increasing street harassment against women and children, drug abuse, thefts and robberies and the formation of criminal groups, amongst other daily security threats and incidents. Adding to this problem is the lack of street lighting caused by power outages, further exacerbating the shortfalls in security. As a result, the communities of Muthafar, particularly women and children, have become afraid to walk in the streets after sunset. Similarly, medical staff find it challenging to access unlit areas after dark, due to increased risk of injury, attack or relief workers stumbling over while carrying injured people.
The lack of street lighting has also created an environment in which criminals and drug dealers can thrive. Due to reduced visibility, they are able to move about unnoticed. The darkness shields them from scrutiny and makes it more difficult for the police to identify them – ensuring impunity for their crimes. In addition, there have been cases of targeted killings against residents in Muthafar, and an improvised explosive device was once found in one of its neighbourhoods.
Responding to this critical issue, community group members, supported by Saferworld and local partner NODS, participated in social gatherings and individual meetings with local leaders, imams, mayors and particularly the police station to discuss steps that could be taken to reduce these threats, and the role that the communities can play in making this happen. They also met with individuals who have been affected by security incidents. Being members of these local communities themselves, many community group members have witnessed and experienced the effects of the deteriorating security situation too.
Following these consultations, community group members developed the idea of the “Light it Up” project. They held field assessments in several areas of Muthafar, prepared a lights distribution plan and assessed the risks that they might face during and after implementation. They planned to install street lights in seven identified areas of the neighbourhood. These areas were chosen based on previous levels of lighting and on how badly they were affected by increasing crime rates as well as the presence of gangs and drug dealers. The street lights were solar powered, with panels distributed in the seven different areas.
Following the installation of the lights, community group members formed a maintenance and follow-up committee, whose responsibility is to continue to engage the local community in maintaining the installed lights as well as the system of solar panels that powers them.
Throughout the process,community group members lobbied and coordinated with the local community – particularly the local police – with regards to the assessment, development, implementation and maintenance of the project to ensure its sustainability. These coordination and advocacy efforts succeeded in sensitising the police to the security concerns of the people of Muthafar, as the police expressed their understanding and their willingness to respond to them.
They also worked with youth leaders within Muthafar to encourage and promote ongoing youth engagement in community-level relief and peacebuilding efforts. They worked to raise awareness of the project’s importance and the impact it would have on people’s day-to-day safety and security, and lobbied for a wider youth and community participation despite the ongoing conflict.
However, the project was not without challenges. The community group received demands from other communities asking for street lights to be installed in their areas too. After consulting local leaders and prominent figures within those communities, houses with private solar panel systems volunteered to put a light bulb outside their doors, in order to help light the streets in those areas.
By tackling some of the factors that drive insecurity, the project has had a huge impact on the residents of those seven areas of Muthafar, as well as in other areas where people were inspired by this project. One man told the groupmembers, “God bless you, and may your lives be brightened as you have lightened ours." A woman expressed her gratitude and said that she no longer had to worry about going home before sunset. Similarly, a child told the groups that he could now stay outside and play for as long as he likes.
On a broader level, the project raised awareness amongst locals and the police of the problems faced by communities and attempted to bring these groups together to address these problems. This project has also strengthened the relationship between group members and their local communities, as they have proven once again how organised and capable they are of providing help in whatever form and whenever it is needed.
Hassan Al-Yabari is Saferworld's Yemen Project Coordinator, Ariana Martini is Grant Manager, Lola Aliaga is Project Coordinator and Saba Albess is Yemen Project Officer.