The Failing Condition of Women’s Education in Yemen

Wednesday, November 7, 2012, Part 1 of 4

Almost unknown to the West, Yemen, a country at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, made international headlines in 2000 for attacks carried out on the USS Cole. In more recent years, the country attracted more international attention with news of the underwear bomber and the deadly drone strike on Anwar Al-Awlaqi. Extremists, all of them men, became famous. Yemeni women rarely made news but it all changed in January of 2011 when the Yemeni Revolution took off. Images of brave women protesting corruption and human rights abuses appeared in the media and began to look familiar. Not only did these women stand side by side with men to support the uprising, but their efforts exceeded all expectations when Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni woman, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 as the first Arab female. Despite what might seem as feminist progress, Yemen was deemed “the worst place for women”: 

Based on the Global Gender Gap 2011 report, which examines the gap between men and women in four fundamental categories: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment. Although Yemen has three women ministers in the current transitional unity government, 3 members in parliament, 1 in the lower house and 2 in the upper house, and there was one woman ambassador out of 57 posts, yet it continues to occupy the last place in the region as well as in the overall rankings of 135 countries for six consecutive years. (Arabia)

Image via Unicef

Image via Unicef

While the media presented a utopian perception of Yemeni women, the reality was that women continued to be treated as inferiors to men. The data by the Global Gender Gap offers the harsh realities of Yemeni women and the solution lies in enhancing female education in order for the nation to move forward. 

Throughout Yemen’s history, female education has been cumbersome. Prior to the unification of Yemen in 1990, the education of women was dichotomous; the northern government was conservative and traditional, while the southern government was Marxist and secular. With the unification, hope and expectations were high for educational improvements; however, over the past twenty years, and especially since the 1994 Civil War, the progress in the education of women and their status remains inadequate. The Yemeni revolution of 2011 provides the country with an opportunity to refocus on female education which, in turn, can contribute to the rebuilding of an egalitarian society. Female illiteracy is the biggest impediment in the nation’s path towards democracy as it stifles half of the population from the development they deserve. 

According to the Human Development Index, Yemen is one of the least developed countries in the world, ranked as country 151 out of 177 with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $631 per capita (Alim 4). In the early nineties, the Yemeni Demographic Survey revealed that the median gender gap in urban areas was 8.1% and was seven times higher in rural areas with 55.7% (Alim 4). Today, Yemen remains underdeveloped and faces many challenges, one of which is education. In 2001, the country made efforts to improve the educational conditions and passed a law enforcing education; thus, making education mandatory for all children ages 6 to 15. The problem is that the law was not strictly enforced because 900,000 primary school age children never enrolled in school in 2005. Most of these children are girls because 85% of males enrolled while only 65% of females enrolled (Khalife 13). Furthermore, Yemeni females lag behind their neighboring female counterparts with a gap of at least 30% to that of Saudi Arabian, Emirati, and Omani women where literacy rates are 85%, 90%, and 84% (Khalife 12). 

As of 2012, 60% of all Yemeni women remain illiterate; however, long before the unification of 1990 or the civil war of 1994, the government was well aware of the educational challenges facing women (Noman 2). Statistical data continuously revealed that the rural areas of the country were underprivileged. Education was more prominent in urban areas and females were always amongst the least enrolled, whether it was in urban or rural settings. These numbers revealed that the country needed a serious action plan to address these challenges. The objective of creating a unified female edification was not going to be an easy task due to the binary educational structures that existed within two distinct ideological Yemens. 

Next piece: Women's Education in the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen)