Obstacles in the Path of Female Education 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Child Marriages

Image via  Glamour Magazine

Child marriages remains one of the biggest impediments to female education. Ironically, it is a cause and symptom of this problem. In the West, the story of Nujood Ali, who was married at the age of nine to a man in his thirties and became known as the youngest divorcee in Yemen became famous, she even has a bestselling book, I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced. Once married, it is hard for young women to get a divorce; first, talaq unilaterally belongs to men, and second, if a girl attempts to get khul’a or no fault divorce, then she must return her pride price and forgo financial support (Khalife 9). This complicates matters because young women do not have their own money or come from really poor families who are desperately in need of it. While this rarely happens in the West, in Yemen, there are numerous comparable stories. The UNICEF revealed that in 2006, 14% of all females in Yemen were married before the age 15, while 52% (more than half) were married before the age of 18 (Khalife 1). Most children finish their high school education by the age of 18 but Yemeni girls are inclined to leave schools to fulfill household responsibilities. 


Young brides also means young mothers. The lack of education leaves many of these mothers with no options as “they have little chance of controlling how many children they have, or when they have them” (Khalife 2). Only 9.3% of all women ages 15 to 49 use a modern form of contraceptive, so it is not surprising that 45.1% of all women aged 20 to 24 gave birth before the age of 20. Moreover, these young mothers endanger their own lives as the number of women who die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth (also known as the Mother Mortality Ratio) is 430 per 100,000. This number is high but it appears low in comparison to the 21.6% of women who have a delivery with the assistance of a health care professional (doctor, nurse or midwife). If the mothers are not risking their own lives, then they are risking the lives of their children, the estimated number of infant deaths under 12 months (infant mortality rate) in 2009 was 58.4 per 1,000 (USAID).

Furthermore, uneducated mothers use Khat or Catha Edulis (family of Celastraceoe), which is a psychotropic plant commonly found in Yemen, Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. In the South, in 1978, the NLF was successful in preventing its use, except for weekends (Ghanem 8). However, during unification, Khat became accessible and its production remains unregulated. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) one of the consequences of khat is that it is psychologically addictive. Other studies revealed that it contains several chemical elements that function as a stimulant; causing Khat chewers to experience anxiety, insomnia, depression, moodiness, and hypertension. Moreover, the chemicals sprayed on the plants and pesticides are known to cause heartburn, constipation, anorexia, nasal problems and other digestive illnesses. Sadly, many of the illiterate mothers who chew Khat, are unaware of its dangers and think of it as a cultural tradition. Research proves that mothers who use Khat to have infants with lower birth weights and 40.7% of women in a recent study confessed to chewing during pregnancy (Saad 309). Indeed, the lack of education affects the entire society as 46.1% if all children are born underweight (USAID).

Female Workers

Without formal education, many of these women are not equipped to work or generate their own income. Unemployment is high in Yemen, but it is even higher for women, 39% compared to that of men at 16% according to 2005 figures. Yemeni working women make up hardly 20% of all workers, and unless these numbers increase, women will continue to struggle for egalitarianism. Of those women who work, the constitute a minority in the fields that they work in, where 15.5% of education workers are females, and 35.6% percent of women work in the agricultural sector (Khalife 10). These numbers may not entirely disclose the reality of women working in agriculture. Many women work in farms that belong to men in their families and in such jobs, it is considered a duty so they do not get payment in exchange. Hakmah Ali, a 40-year-old woman reveals that all her life she has been working in her family’s farm, she explains:

My program starts early in the morning. I get up at 5 o’clock in the morning. I feed my two cows and ox. We have also 30 heads of sheep and goats. After that, I wake my children up, give them breakfast and ask them to take the cattle to the nearby areas to herd, said ‘Ali. After I finish my work at home, I go to the farm to help my husband or to bring something for the cattle to eat. (Al-Omari)

The shortage in educated females restricts women from choosing the professions they desire. Even when they desire a job, it is not that easy because 44% of women report that their husbands decide whether they work or not (Khalife 11). 

Cultural Tradition

“Do not put the gas next to the match”
“A dog won’t come unless its called”
“Women are deficient in intellect and religion as well as inheritance”
“If you follow a woman’s wishes you become one” (Boxberger, 119-120).

These are only some of the proverbs about women in Yemen. The first two reveal a lot about the social position of women. Yemeni society is very conservative and women chastity is expected and protected. In the first saying, women are compared to “the gas” and men to “the match”, the proverb warns of the “explosion” that inappropriate gender mixing can lead to. Many families are scared of sending their daughters to co-educational schools and rural families fear for their daughters and prevent them from going to school because they are too far. The next saying reveals that if anything happens, including sexual assault on a woman, then she is responsible for bringing it unto herself. Following that is a common saying that is based on the female Islamic inheritance (lil rajol haq al-inthayan - for men double the women); the culture deducted that it is so because women are “deficient”. Finally, the last saying is self-explanatory but is really problematic because it reveals an attitude that would challenge women once their education and employment increases. 
If a female is in a place of leadership, then she would have trouble gaining respect and mustering the support of her male colleagues. Experts like Linda Boxberger, view cultural traditions as the biggest obstacle in the path of Yemeni women in general (130). Many other families are just convinced that women are destined to be in marriages, so when coupled with economic hardships, they choose to send their sons over their daughters (see chart 6).

Chart 6: Proportion of Boys and Girls enrolled in Primary School by Country

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Source: Baerlocher, Mark O. "Differences in the Proportion of Boys and Girls Enrolled in Primary School." Canadian Medical Association Journal 177.7 (2007): 712. Print.


The average size of a Yemeni family is seven (USAID) and more than half of Yemen’s population lives below the poverty line, while 16% of the population lives with less than $1 a day (‘Alim 6). If a family has many daughters then the parents chose to withdraw their daughters from school and marry them to a wealthier man in order to guarantee their survival. Poverty is only going to increase because the economy growth is decreasing (13% inflation) while the population growth is rapidly increasing (3.02% per year). Al-Mekhlafey predicts that poverty alters the priorities of families, making female education at the bottom of the list (274).

Next piece: Reflections and Recommendations (Female Education Yemen)