News & Reports

For Yemeni Women, the Path to Universities Gets Tougher

Yemen’s devastating civil war continues to take a toll on education at all levels, but female students suffer most in terms of lost opportunities. 

Female students outperform male students in Yemen’s high-school exit exams, according to official statistics. However, few female students attend university, compared to their male counterparts.

In 2017, female students’ success rate on the high-school exit exam was about 66 percent in the scientific branch and 80 percent in the arts branch. Still, fewer than 8 percent of the women who passed the exam enrolled in university, according to the Ministry of Education.

“The road is not safe, and the university is far away. So my father decided not to send me to university and that my high school is enough.”

Hanaa Fouad
 A young woman in Yemen

“Unfortunately, the ongoing war and the deteriorating security situation forced a high percentage of female students not to attend university despite their excellence,” said Halima Jahaf, director of the Gender Center at Sana’a University. She pointed out that security issues in some governorates, including abductions, assassinations and attacks on education by forces on both sides of the conflict, discourage families from sending their daughters to schools or universities. Instead, they prefer to have their daughters marry young, in part to protect them.

Yemen, like many Arab countries, suffers from gender inequality in education. As the educational level goes up, the number of female students decreases. 

In 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available, 86 percent of Yemeni girls enrolled in primary education, according to statistics from the Ministry of Education and Unesco. At the secondary level, however, only 43 percent enrolled in school. Those figures compare to a nearly 99 percent enrollment rate for boys in primary schools and a 59 percent enrollment rate at the secondary level.

There is no updated statistic for the university level, but experts say participation levels for both sexes drop sharply, to around 15 percent for men and no more than 7 percent for women.

The low female participation rates in education are due in part to the small number of girls’ schools in the countryside, the economic circumstances of families, and social customs. Traditionally, the preference of Yemeni parents is for boys to go to school and for girls to get married at a young age. (See a related article, “Yemeni Women’s Uphill Struggle for Education.”)

A Priority on Educating Men

For some young women, attending a university is not an option, regardless of their success in high school. Hanaa Fouad, for example, was not allowed to attend a university because of the distance between the campus and her village. “The road is not safe, and the university is far away,” she said. “So my father decided not to send me to university and that my high school is enough.”

For others, family pressures may cut their education short. Wafa Mohammed, a former student at Taiz University’s Faculty of Commerce, was forced to drop out after her husband renounced his pledge to allow her to complete her university education—a condition her family had imposed as part of the marriage agreement. “All my parents’ attempts to convince him to reverse his decision failed,” she said. “Thus, I was asked to choose between university and divorce. Of course my family chose to save my marriage over my education.” 

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female students at Hadhramout University
Admission exam for female students at Hadhramout University (Photo: Hadhramout University).

According to a 2016 report from Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, more than two-thirds of Yemeni girls were married before the age of 18, and 45 percent were married before the age of 15. Early marriage means girls are deprived of continuing their education as well as potentially being subjected to physical abuse and domestic violence. Gender-based violence has increased markedly in Yemen since the conflict started heating up in late 2014, the report said. (See a related article, “Early Marriage Is Back in the Spotlight in the Middle East.”)

Karima Yousef Abdullah hopes her father’s financial condition will improve so she can complete her university education. She was unable to attend university last year despite her excellent score on the high-school exit exam because her two brothers started attending the university this year.

“My father can’t afford all of our education,” she said. “Since my brothers managed to succeed in the high-school exit exam this year, they were a priority to him because they will work later and help support the family.” 

Ali al-Yazidi al-Hawri, a professor of radio and television at Hodeidah University, said that the ongoing war and the spread of poverty, along with the limited seats at public universities, “have made educating males the priorities of Yemeni families, increasing the negative impact of war on females.” 

The Consequences of War

The strife in Yemen goes back to instabilities that followed the Arab Spring protest movements of 2011 and a failed presidential transition process in 2012. Fighting broke out in 2014 when an armed rebel group known as the Houthis seized the capital, Sana’a, and much of northern Yemen.

Saudi Arabia entered the conflict in March 2015, leading a military coalition that has been conducting land, air and sea operations against the Houthis in support of the forces of Yemen’s internationally recognized president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

“Reconstruction of Yemen needs the participation of all its citizens, both men and women.”

Ahlam Saleh
bin Brik  President of the Center for Women’s Studies at Hadhramout University

The fighting has claimed nearly 100,000 lives, according to recent reports, and destroyed or damaged countless buildings, including homes, schools and hospitals. About 78 percent of Yemenis live in poverty, and 80 percent of them need some form of social protection, such as cash assistance. The number of people in need of medical assistance has more than tripled to 16 million, rising from five million before the war.

The war also has had disastrous consequences for education. In a report released last year, Unicef described education in Yemen as one of the biggest casualties of the war. The number of out-of-school children was estimated at two million, compared to 1.6 million before the conflict, according to data from the Ministry of Education. University education has also suffered a sharp decline in quality, a shortage of qualified professors, and falling numbers of students. (See a related article, “Yemen: Chaos, War and Higher Education.”)

Bushra al-Mahtouri, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Education in the Sana’a government, believes that the continuous aerial bombardment negatively affects education in general and girls’ education in particular.

“The shelling destroys economic facilities, cuts off household income and stops paying wages, forcing thousands of families to stop sending their daughters to schools and universities to protect them and also to save their education expenses,” she said.

But Yemeni women’s desire to continue their education does not seem to be in decline.  The Women’s National Committee in Sana’a, a government-created advisory group that develops policies to advance the status of women, found in a recent survey of 898 female secondary school students that 78 percent wanted to go on to a university.

“This is a very positive indicator that must be used to encourage, educate and support girls and their families to complete their university education,” said Ahlam Saleh bin Brik, president of the Center for Women’s Studies at Hadhramout University. “Reconstruction of Yemen needs the participation of all its citizens, both men and women.”


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