Over two-thirds of Yemeni people live in rural areas. For decades, these areas have suffered from shortages of governmental services and development programs, and little in the way of adequate schools, hospitals, or cultural institutions. Successive governments have also failed to create sustainable economic opportunities for rural populations. As a result, millions of rural Yemenis are trapped with the deadly trio of illiteracy, poverty, and disease. And now more than five years of conflict has significantly worsened living conditions. Women and children often bear the brunt of health issues and economic insecurity. Further, without development and economic opportunities in these areas, militias and extremist or criminal groups are more likely to recruit young men, who may get involved in illegal practices such as human trafficking. Kawkab Alwadeai argues that a new approach should be adopted by any future government so that inhabitants of rural areas are treated on an equal footing with urban populations. Supporting the agricultural sector and providing access to education and healthcare in these areas should be a top priority.
Rural areas in Yemen: A history of formal neglect
For the last 60 years, successive Yemeni governments have failed to provide the 19 million people who make up the rural population with basic services such as medical care and education. They have also failed to create sustainable economic opportunities for people living in rural areas
Large urban centers have tended to receive the most public and private sector investment. The majority of the political elite, as well as big and small merchants, live in the main cities. Even tribal leaders often control their home rural areas from a city address. As the biggest urban center of the highland North, development is concentrated in the capital Sana’a. The city has seen the largest investment in public services, with good schools, good doctors, and paved roads.
In contrast with most urban areas, rural areas have received little in the way of public or private sector support for services. For Yemenis in rural areas, access to schools and healthcare is especially difficult. Schools, particularly for older students, are often located in central towns a long distance from the villages. Due to social norms, girls often cannot travel these distances and drop out of school after primary school education. Rural schools also often struggle to find qualified teachers to hire. Similarly, the better equipped and better staffed health centers and hospitals are mostly situated in towns and urban centers, and it is difficult for some people, such as those with health problems or pregnant women, to travel the distances required, particularly in mountainous areas with bad roads. Job opportunities are also rare.
Yemen’s governments have failed to empower decision-making at the regional or local level. Under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the central state showed no interest in serving the rural citizens, aside from linking prominent rural figures such as sheikhs, officers, and businessmen to the president’s informal patronage network. These figures enjoyed preferred status and cash handouts in return for ensuring the loyalty of rural areas’ populations to the ruling party and the president himself.
As a result of decades of neglect, rural areas in the south east, such as Al-Baydha, Abyan, and Hadramawt, have become a fertile environment for religious extremist groups including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. These groups have capitalized on the governance and cultural vacuum left by the state under Saleh. Prior to their power grab in 2014, the Houthis consolidated their power in the Northern highlands by presenting themselves as opposition to the injustices perpetrated by the central state and by critiquing the lack of state developmental programs in their area.
In future decades, it is likely that Yemen’s rural areas will remain the key source of support for extremist groups, as well as a source of conflict and instability for any future government that rules from city centers, whether in Sana’a, Aden, or elsewhere.
Rural issues exacerbated by the war
The situation in rural areas has been exacerbated by the current conflict. The war has made access to cities for employment and medical services even more difficult, as fuel costs have skyrocketed, roads have been damaged, and various conflict actors have taken control over people’s movements. The war has prevented many much-needed rural development projects in areas such as water and healthcare. Access to food has become increasingly difficult for families who were already highly malnourished.
All areas in the rural Northern highlands, in particular Saudi-bordering Hajjah and Saada governorates, have been targeted directly with intense aerial bombardment by the Saudi coalition, leading to the destruction of the governorates’ infrastructure. Even hospitals were not spared from the bombing. Abs hospital in Hajjah, run by Doctors Without Borders, was bombed four times. The education, energy, housing, transportation, water, and sanitation sectors have also been badly affected. When famine hit districts of Hajjah, local media reported stories of families eating leaves from trees, with dozens of children doomed to die from starvation.
It is impossible to forget the scene of a Yemeni father from Aslam district in Hajjah, who carried his infant and walked for three hours from his village, barefoot, until he arrived at the district’s health center, which suffers from a severe shortage of medical supplies. He then walked back to his village, with the baby dead in his arms.
Despite the lack of development in the pre-war period, rural areas were the main source of food production for Yemen, and rural agriculture, fisheries, and water sectors provided jobs for a large proportion of the population. These sectors have struggled since the outset of the war. For example, the rise in fuel prices over the past five years has affected Yemeni farmers’ ability to operate machinery and transport goods, as well as secure sufficient safe drinking water and water for irrigation and livestock. Fishermen have been unable to supply their boats with the necessary fuel, which has led to a significant decline in fisheries production, affecting both their ability to make an income and provide local sources of food.
Women and children in rural areas
As much of Yemen is rural, this has historically greatly affected the status of Yemeni women in these areas and their access to various services, most importantly, health and education. The United Nations Population Fund indicated in the Humanitarian Response Report 2020 that about six million women and girls of childbearing age (15 to 49) are in need of support; the majority of these women live in rural areas. Due to rising food shortages, more than one million pregnant women are left malnourished and are at risk of giving birth to babies with stunted growth. In addition, 114,000 women are at risk of developing childbirth complications.
The violence and insecurity brought on by the current conflict have also greatly increased the burdens and responsibilities on women in rural areas. Women often deal with most family needs, including taking responsibility for livestock, cooking, fetching water and firewood, and working in the fields alongside men. Women also care for children, the elderly, and the ill. They fulfill these obligations in the absence of men who have become fighters, are imprisoned, injured, or dead.
Children in rural areas – those who have survived cholera, malaria, dengue fever, diphtheria, malnutrition, and famine – are susceptible to all kinds of abuse, including sexual abuse, child marriage, child labor, forced begging, and exploitation by armed groups and war profiteers. Human Rights Watch reports that all the conflicting parties in Yemen (the Houthis, the forces supported by the internationally recognized government, in addition to the extremist Islamic groups) are using child soldiers in the armed conflict.
For rural girls, the situation is no better than for boys. In some areas, those who were fortunate enough to receive an education before the war walked for more than two hours to reach school, but all means have been cut off during the war; schools were targeted with aerial bombardment or turned into shelters for displaced people. A study by UNICEF indicated that the illiteracy rate among Yemeni girls and women has reached 53 percent. Moreover, extreme poverty among families has resulted in an increase in early marriage. The total number of girls who marry before the age of 18 has reached 52 percent, of which 14 percent marry before the age of 15. The lives of these girls are endangered because they become pregnant at an early age and can experience sexual abuse, premature birth, or abortion. They are also likely to experience malnutrition, all the while lacking health care.
Division and conflict preclude comprehensive development
Unfortunately, the Houthis and the internationally recognized government, who meet at the negotiating table from time to time, do not see beyond the control of territory and the distribution of government positions after the war. The goals they pursue will not lead to sustainable peace. This can only be achieved through comprehensive development, starting in the areas that have been neglected for decades: the rural areas.
Sustainable peace will also not be achieved without social justice that gives all Yemenis access to education and health, job opportunities, and political participation. The rights of all citizens, children, women, and men, must be protected by strengthening the legal, legislative, and executive authority, where all people are subject to civil law. Future governments need to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors. Instead of spending the state budget on tribal leaders, businessmen, and other individuals connected to the elite, the state must consider the needs of all Yemenis equally.
The donors sponsoring the peace process in Yemen should help support real development for the 71 percent of the population who live in rural areas. Yemen does not need food baskets and infant formula. Instead, international actors should help rebuild the destroyed infrastructure, and provide real development projects for rural areas, with a particular focus on women. Women are key to the development of rural areas in the short and long term.
Dr. Kawkab Alwadeai is a consultant in the Women’s National Committee of Yemen and a member of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa. She has over 18 years of experience working in the fields of human rights and peace and dialogue, developing plans and strategies on gender-based violence, sexual and gender-based violence, and extremist violence at the community level in the governorates and NGOs of Yemen as well as for government officials.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or its donors.