Women in Yemen today face obstacles to complete political, economic, and social integration and equality. Sultana Al-Jeham studies the position of women in society, the challenges they face, the role civil society plays in advancing their cause, and why they still have a large gap to bridge before achieving true equality.

On May 19, 2010 the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion with Al-Jeham, a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Executive Director and Chairwoman of Women's Affairs within the Civic Democratic Initiatives Support Foundation (CDF) in Yemen. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program, moderated the event. In her discussion, Al-Jeham provided a sweeping overview of Yemeni women's position in political, economic, and social affairs.

Although Yemen was a signatory of the International Human Rights Convention and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and its laws nominally declare the equality of men and women socially, economically, and politically, women in Yemen still face challenges in effectively participating in development.

With only one woman in a Parliament of 301 members, women are woefully underrepresented in the upper echelons of government. Al-Jeham cited the important role of political parties and their general reluctance to support women candidates as a primary factor. Intentionally choosing weak candidates to run in constituencies they are sure to lose, political parties also provide little financial support to women candidates, ensuring their disadvantage in elections. Although NGOs such as CDF encourage women's election bids, without the support of a political party their influence is not enough.

Typically working in a family-based agricultural setting, women have few chances to independently advance economically. Limited market access, exorbitant interest rates, and complex loan procedures all inhibit women's ability to join the labor force outside of traditional nonpaid agricultural roles. Violence in Yemen has shrunk already limited markets, thereby further eroding women's ability to advance enterprise. Civil society has attempted to overcome these obstacles through raising awareness of giving women their inheritance and empowering women through rights and vocational training.

According to Al-Jeham, the educational obstacles women face are the foundations of their political and economic difficulties as well. Societal customs, such as forcing girls to drop out of school at a young age in order to marry and to raise large families as one factor, explains the 33 percent educational gender gap in Yemen. The high illiteracy rate engendered from limited schooling further hinders women as they try to understand their political rights. Additionally, when the generally poor health-information system finally reaches the 75 percent of women living in rural areas, there are not enough female health cadres to educate rural women about family planning methods and other female medical issues.

Although laws for equality and justice are in place, their practice in society is limited and women remain disadvantaged. While targeting local communities to raise awareness among women of their rights and to empower women politically and economically, civil society is limited by women's limited financial resources. Al-Jeham expressed frustration at the fact that until women have greater access to sustained education, a formal women's movement in which women help elevate and empower each other is impossible.

By Kate Connelly, Middle East Program
Haleh Esfandiari, Middle East Program