YEMEN: Female education remains key challenge [Archives:2007/1086/Reportage]
Aisha Al-Gilany remembers the struggle all too well. For four years she fought with her parents to allow her to attend university.
“My sisters all went to grade five and then dropped out,” recalled the 23-year-old from Al-Fars Rajam village, two hours outside Sanaa, the capital.
“My parents didn't approve of us going,” she explained, adjusting the black chador covering her face. She adheres strictly to the conservative norms that govern most Muslim women in this part of the world.
Though her parents wanted their five daughters to be literate, female education was never deemed particularly important in her village. “Women in Yemen are supposed to stay at home and clean,” Aisha said.
“Why should girls go to school?” asked 57-year-old Ahmed, a local shopkeeper.
“OK, they can go, but the priority should always be on the men,” a slightly more open-minded young man said. In Yemen, such comments are far from new, particularly in rural areas where the vast majority of the population lives.
The government says the gender gap with regard to education is “considerable”. While national illiteracy rates stand at about 30 percent for men, they exceed 67 percent for women, it says.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) says access to education is one of the biggest challenges facing children in Yemen today, especially girls. Nearly half of primary school age girls do not go to school.
According to the most recent Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), the gender gap in education in Yemen is among the highest in the world. Girls' education is a highly gender-sensitive issue, the 2005 report said, citing cultural factors like gender specific roles, early marriage, segregation between the sexes, and poverty as the primary barriers.
This results in gender inequality in education, with human development indicators for female literacy and the net enrolment ratio for females amongst the lowest worldwide, it said.
In addition to the gender gap in education, urban-rural differences were significant: 84.8 percent of urban and 68.9 percent of rural males aged 10 and above are literate, compared to only 59.5 percent of urban and 24 percent of rural females, respectively, the National Document to Promote Girls' Education in Yemen, said in 2005.
UNDP reports that in Yemen, in primary education, females account for just 52.8 percent of the number of males that are enrolled, and in secondary education 35.3 percent of males that are enrolled – making female enrolment rates in Yemen amongst the lowest in the Arab world.
Socio-cultural versus economic factors
“The gender-disparity in Yemen is the worst in the world,” Dr Arwa Yahya Al-Deram, executive director of Soul, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) currently working to promote female enrolment in two of the country's 19 governorates, told IRIN in Sanaa.
Low female participation in education was attributed to several socio-cultural factors, she said: the tradition of early marriage in rural areas hindered girls' schooling and resulted in high drop out rates; the high importance of a girl's chastity in rural areas; the reluctance of many parents to send girls to mixed gender schools; and the negative social attitudes towards girls' education.
Al-Deram, however, placed more emphasis on the economic factors than on people's perceptions of education, saying that attitudes were not as bad as people thought. She said available financial resources were a crucial determinant of a parent's decision on their daughter's education, as was the local availability of schools.
“We don't have enough schools just for girls,” she said. “The classes are mixed, and that's not acceptable in Yemeni culture,” Al-Deram said.
“Non-availability of female teachers is a major factor often cited by parents for keeping girls away from school,” Nasim-ur-Rehman, a UNICEF spokesman in Sanaa said. Even if the schools exist, they often lacked basic amenities like a toilet, he added.
Comparison with other Arab countries
The AHDR, sponsored by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), said significant differences exist between Arab countries in giving women access to education.
School enrolment rates for girls in several Arab oil-producing countries and in Jordan, Lebanon, the occupied Palestinian territory and Tunisia are, in fact, higher than for boys, the report says, while the highest relative rate of deprivation of education occurs in those Arab countries with the largest populations, such as Egypt, Morocco and Sudan, and the least-developed ones, such as Djibouti and Yemen.
After years of persistence, Aisha's parents finally gave in to her dream, but to this day her brothers refuse to speak to her. “They think I have brought shame onto the family, as well as the community,” she said.
Yet, for Aisha, now a second year physics student at Sanaa University, that does not matter. “It's OK that they aren't speaking to me,” she smiled. “Time will heal this and by then I will be an educated woman.”