This week in International Women’s Issues, I’m focusing on Yemen. Why? Because, time and time again, Yemen holds the title of The Worst Place in the World To Live if You are a Woman. There are a variety of factors that contribute to this ignoble distinction, which I will examine. There are also, happily, a number of women working incredibly hard, risking their lives to improve the living situations of their fellow countrywomen. Most notable, perhaps, is recent Nobel Peace Prize winner, Tawakkol Karman, whose work in Yemen’s Arab Spring movement earned her the nickname “Mother of the Revolution.” Later in this piece, we’ll look at her work, and the work of women like her.
But first, what is going on in Yemen to facilitate this title of “Worst in the World?” (And, perhaps, who is responsible for giving the country that label, and why.) Yemen has only existed in it’s current form since 1990, when North Yemen, a former part of the Ottoman Empire, freed in 1918, united with South Yemen, a former British protectorate, freed in 1967. This is not to say that the region doesn’t have millennia of history behind it (Yemen was an important crossroad between the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, dating back to prehistory) but rather, the current political system has only been in place for twenty years–these things take time before they’re fully functional. And in those twenty years, there has been sporadic violence in several parts of the country. The phrase “Arab Spring” is, I believe a misnomer on some levels–nearly the entirety of 2011 in Yemen was dedicated to protesting and uprisings. The main goal of these protests was the resignation of corrupt President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and while he signed a deal on November 23, 2011, saying he would step down, he has made and broken similar promises over the course of the past year. The year of nationwide instability, while it may open the door for increased women’s rights, has done no favors to the nation’s economy.
Speaking of economy, here are some key statistics. Yemen has an incredibly young population–over half of the country is under the age of eighteen. This means that Yemen suffers from a youth bulge, an international development term indicating that, due to the high proportion of youth in a country, unemployment, civil unrest, and violence are very likely. Yemen lacks the oil reserves of its neighbors, and has been identified as the first nation that will “run out of water” as the population grows increasingly quickly, and the water table keeps dropping.
Yemen is ranked 154 out of 187 on the Human Development Index, which measures, as I’ve mentioned before, the average health, education, and income in a country. Being ranked so low on the list indicates a very poor standard of living for many Yemenis. Forty-three percent of children under age 5 are underweight, the second highest rate in the world.
It is when it comes to literacy and education, however, that the gender divide starts to become clear. Men have a 70 percent literacy rate, while only 30 percent of women are literate. Similarly, out of the population that does attend school, men receive, on average, 11 years of schooling, while women only attend school for 7 years. As someone who focused her MA on international education, this is the biggest gap I’ve ever come across. It’s one thing if education for both genders is incredibly low–that can speak to a lack of resources, instability, etc. But the fact that there’s a four year gap between the genders implies a massive systematic undervaluing of girls’ education, and therefore, of girls and women themselves.
Let’s investigate this “Worst Country in the World For Women” claim further. First, the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, put Yemen dead last on it’s Gender Inequality Index, out of 154 nations ranked. The Gender Inequality Index combines maternal mortality, adolescent fertility, parliamentary representation, educational attainment beyond primary school, and labor force participation. While Yemen may not have the worst stats in any one of these areas, when combined, Yemen’s at the bottom of the list. In addition to the UN statistics, the World Economic Forum, a European-based international organization completely independent organization from the UN, also named Yemen as the worst offender when it comes to a gender gap. In fact, they’ve been at the bottom for the last five years straight, based on a combination of factors including: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. In addition to these statistics, child marriage is incredibly prevalent, as there is no legal minimum age for marriage. (Perhaps you remember the case of the eight-year-old Yemeni girl who fought for her right to get a divorce? I could do an entire separate column on child marriage in Yemen.) Domestic abuse is all too common as well.
Basically, women have it incredibly hard in every aspect of their lives. There are many women working hard to change that, though, so let’s focus on how Yemeni women are getting themselves and their sisters out of this situation.
First, we have Tawakkol Karman, the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded for her work in the Arab Spring, and for her contributions to women’s rights in Yemen. The role of women in revolutions is fascinating, as it is sometimes possible to carve a space out for major advancements in women’s rights in the midst of political upheaval. Indeed, Karman’s role as a leader of the revolution is, well, revolutionary in and of itself. On a national level, she founded an organization in 2005 called Women Journalists Without Chains, a group that fights for freedom of expression and independent journalism. Since the uprising, her organization has turned its attention to documenting human rights abuses, and using new media to advocate for revolution. The organization focuses on raising awareness about the rights of women journalists, and the importance of women protestors in the uprisings.
There is also the Yemeni Women’s Union, the oldest women’s NGO in Yemen, a massive organization that works to improve nearly every aspect of women’s lives. On the education front, they have programs to increase female literacy and combat the drop-out rates of girls. In terms of health, they are fighting child marriage, and educating women and men about reproductive health, including eliminating FGM and decreasing the transmission rate of AIDS. Economically, they facilitate micro-loans, impacting thousands of families, and they do income-generation training, with dozens of centers nationwide that provide English language instruction, computer skills, sewing and hairdressing classes. They fight for increased women’s political participation and legal protection. All of these activities together impact millions of Yemeni women, helping them to improve their lives, bit by bit.
On a smaller scale, there is the Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights, a woman-run Yemeni organization that advocates for human rights, democracy, and women’s rights in particular. There is also the Yemeni Women Media Forum, a woman-founded and led organization that, much like Ms. Karman’s organization, advocates for women’s rights and gender equality through freedom of the press.
Per usual, these organizations are only a few of the many women’s rights organizations in Yemen–they are the ones big enough, or well-enough supported, to have a web presence. Look again at the breadth of activities carried out by the Yemeni Women’s Union. It goes against logic to think that they are the only group doing these sorts of projects–job training, education, literacy, etc. I’ve written a lot about the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners in this column, partially because it’s so mind-blowingly awesome that these women were finally recognized on a global level for their hard work, but also because they have become the names and faces of the “women changing the world for the better” movement. It’s fantastic, but they don’t stand alone. Yemen may be the worst place in the world to be a woman, but there are women working to change that. And in a place where surviving, let alone thriving, is a daily struggle, women who have set their sights on improving things can’t help but succeed ““ look at all they’ve had to conquer already.
CIA World Factbook: Yemen
Human Development Reports: Gender Inequality Index
The Global Gender Gap Report, 2011
Website of the Union of Yemeni Women (in Arabic, via Google Translate)
Women Journalists Without Chains
Yemeni President Saleh Signs Deal on Ceding Power