The Houthis’ current push against women’s ability to participate in the public sphere has been widely discussed on social media. Just weeks after the Internationally Recognized Government (IRG) formed a male-only government – the first in 20 years – pictures of brick walls being built in Sana’a university classrooms to segregate genders were being shared online. These events highlight the growing dangers to female political participation and education. In fact, solving the first requires tackling the second, as researcher and translator Amal Abdullah argues.
Despite the significant role Yemeni women played in the 2011 uprising and the commitment to a political representation quota they secured at the 2013-14 National Dialogue Conference (NDC), their role in national decision-making has been gradually diminishing since the onset of the civil war. The IRG’s new power-sharing agreement falls far short of the 30 percent female quota agreed during the NDC. Similarly, although there is much international discussion around improving inclusion in future peace processes in an attempt to create sustainable peace, there is little tangible movement to this effect. NGOs and INGOs have pushed to include women in peace process with efforts such as “Yemeni women’s leadership in the peace process, humanitarian space and beyond”, an event held in Geneva in 2019, which looked at issues such as women’s leadership in peace building and humanitarian response. Unfortunately, to date, this push for greater inclusion has not materialized. Zero women were included in the Riyadh agreement negotiations, and they represented just 4 percent of the delegation at the Stockholm agreement talks, with none from Ansarallah-controlled areas.
This lack of women’s participation in politics is caused in part by women’s restricted social status in Yemen, particularly within tribal communities. Religious, social, cultural and gender norms reinforce each other and severely limit the ability of women to pursue higher education, which in turn reduces their ability to take up roles or work outside the household, including in politics. Such conservative socio-cultural norms have been entrenched within Yemeni society for decades now, but these chains can be broken through university. Women who are highly educated are able to participate in the labor force and political life, while those who are deprived of their right to education are trapped within their predefined societal roles.
In most societies, to be a woman is a challenge in itself but Yemen is an extreme example. As a male-dominated society heavily influenced by tribal and religious traditions, women within it are raised to fulfill specific roles: wife and mother. This is the priority – getting an education and a career remain non-essential for most. Parents are also more likely to invest any income they do have in their sons’ education because they are expected to support their families later in life, unlike their daughters. Women also lack independence in their daily life, with their male relatives able to shape their lives socially and financially. Many Yemeni women can’t leave the house, apply for a job or even visit their extended family without the permission of a man.
As a Yemeni woman, I have seen the impact of these restrictive socio-cultural norms up close. Although my immediate family supported my desire to continue my higher education via a university summer course abroad, my extended family did not agree. They tried to discourage my father’s decision, arguing that it went against our cultural, tribal and religious norms for a woman to travel without a male guardian. What was most disappointing was that it wasn’t only my male relatives who took this stance, but also the women. Fortunately, my father pushed me to go anyway. It was a formative experience. Living alone outside my hometown changed me significantly, opening my eyes to how women in other societies could occupy different roles in society and prompting me to pursue a post-graduate degree and a career as a researcher. Yet to have got to university age and still be in education meant I was already one of the lucky ones.
In fact, the biggest barrier to education for Yemeni women arises when she reaches the age of puberty. Younger girls have a modestly high educational attainment rate, but this falls significantly around puberty. At this age, most parents require their daughters to start wearing the hijab and begin to monitor their interaction with the opposite sex, with various freedoms gradually reduced. This is because any hint of sexual activity outside of marriage would be seen as damaging a girl’s social standing. As a result, many parents decide it is safer for their daughters to drop out of school – most of which are mixed – to avoid any possibility of interaction with boys. The numbers illustrate this clearly: in 2016, the number of girls enrolled in primary school was nearly 90 percent, but dropped by more than half to just over 40 percent in secondary school. Those that don’t drop out often have access to single-sex schools, which are few and far between, especially in rural areas or at university level.
Linked to this is the prevalence of early marriage, seen as a major factor behind the high teenage drop-out rate. Often this is done for financial reasons and Yemen’s conflict has exacerbated this further by reducing families’ income. According to UNICEF, before the crisis began, half of women got married before turning 18, a figure that has now risen to two-thirds. For those women fortunate enough to continue through secondary school once married, their duties as a wife still supersedes the requirements of their education. The responsibilities that accompany marriage – including childbearing, childcare, cooking, cleaning and so on – are usually too much to handle on top of schooling, especially if they live with the husband’s extended family. As a result, most women are unable to participate in the country’s wider public and political life, because their lives revolve now around their husband, children, social gatherings, and household chores.
Although the number of universities in Yemen has gradually increased – there are now around nine public universities and 18 private ones, most located in Sana’a – women’s enrolment in higher education remains very low. The rate of Yemeni females enrolled in tertiary education was only 6 percent of the total university-age female population in 2011 – the latest data available – and only one third of total student enrollment in tertiary education were females. These rates have likely fallen in the past six years of conflict. Further, most female students opt for a narrow range of subjects that avoid mixed-gender working environments. For example, education is popular because most female teachers have limited contact with men. By contrast, very few women enroll in public policy degrees. Making such studies more accessible would help boost political participation.
It is not a formal requirement to have a higher education degree to be a candidate for any government role. However, informally, the entry requirements are set much higher for women, who need to go above and beyond in order to be taken seriously in our male-dominated society. Yemeni women have to achieve higher levels of education, professional skills, and learn to network better in order to gain entry to the political arena and participate in decision-making.
The barriers to education have persisted for decades in Yemeni society, but change can happen in the long-term. Increasing the rate of women with higher education degrees would help to break down socio-culture barriers within households and may encourage the next generation of women to expand their roles in society. Giving the current highly educated women policy-shaping positions where they can help implement solutions to issues such as gender equality and early marriage, this would help more girls to access higher education. The few women who succeed in their education and careers will shape the future of others by acting as role models to motivate and support younger females.
Higher education plays a significant role in improving women’s social and economic status in society and provides them with the necessary tools to regain their plundered rights. It also has direct and indirect effects on the kinds of roles women are able to play outside the home. If access to this does not increase, female political participation is also unlikely to rise.
Author bio: Amal Abdullah is a researcher and a translator. She has published analyses on YPC’s Majlis blog and served as a translator for YPC projects and several other organizations, including UN Human Rights Training and the Documentation Centre for South-West Asia and the Arab Region. She has also written various reports on subjects including the effect of women’s education on fertility rates in Yemen. Previously she has held several admin positions in media and education. She has a Master’s degree in Development Economics from Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or its donors.
Translator: Fatima Saleh
Editor : Kate Nevens
Copy Editor: Venetia Rainey
Photographer: Hayat al-Sharif
YPC nationwide representative survey, April–July 2019. Data cited in this paper is drawn from this survey unless otherwise indicated.
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