Eating Sushi in Yemen

A BLOG POST BY STEPHENIE FOSTERYemen Yes, I did eat great sushi in Yemen, while there working on a project to address deficiencies in girls' education. Surprising, I know, because Yemen is not known for sushi. It's known for many other things: gorgeous stained glass windows, an amazing Old City, the bombing of the USS Cole, as a place where men (and some women) chew qat every day, and a country running out of water and arable land. It's the home of a 2011 Nobel Prize winner, Tawakkul Karman, and it is also Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland. It's a place where women can drive and vote, but child marriage is common and there is only one woman in its 301 seat parliament.

Yemen is a land of contrasts, to be sure. It is a country with strong tribal affiliations and ancient traditions. Yemen is poor, with a rugged topography that is also beautiful and captivating. Yemen is the size of Wyoming, and for most Yemenis, life on a daily basis is challenging. The country has a population of 24 million and GDP of only $13 billion. Forty five percent of Yemenis live below the poverty line. Only 3% of the land is arable, and resources are limited. Life expectancy is 63 years and 43% of the population is under 14. The literacy rate is 50% overall but only 30% among women.

Having said all of that, Yemen is at a challenging and pivotal political moment. Months of sustained and courageous protests throughout the country reflect the desire for some sort of change. After being granted immunity, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country for 35 years, just left the country for medical treatment in the U. S. While vowing to return, most observers believe that he should not, so that the process of transition to some kind of new government and political environment can begin in earnest. There is currently an election on February 21 for president, with only one consensus candidate on the ballot (Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, the current Vice President). Assuming that Hadi is "confirmed" by the voters, Yemenis can begin to plan for a political future beyond President Saleh.

Yemen is not like other countries who have been part of the Arab Spring -- it is has very few resources, very little oil, very low levels of literacy and education. This may not be the optimal environment for a flourishing democracy, but if Yemenis can create an opportunity for everyone to be part of the future, it can find its way forward. It is critically important that those traditionally excluded from decision making in Yemen -- women and youth -- be part of any processes of reconciliation and be part of decision making at every level. The limited resources that Yemen has need to be used to benefit society as a whole and women and young people in particular. Since resources are scarce, it is especially important that they not be used in a scattershot manner, and that they are targeted at solving the real problems that Yemenis face today and will continue to face for years to come.

I was there to work on a project focused on the legal framework for girls' education. Like so many places, youth make up a high percentage of the population; in Yemen, almost 50% of the population is under 15. Both girls and boys face challenges but girls face enormous ones, especially in rural areas. Girls and young women have lower levels of education than boys and young men, and Yemen has one of the lowest enrollment rates for girls in the region.

Poverty and social norms are big contributors to these statistics, as well as the lack of women teachers in rural areas and inadequate facilities. In 2008, the government of Yemen calculated that the national enrollment rate for girls in basic education was 74.8% to that of boys, 58.8% to that of boys in secondary (high school) education and 37.5% to that of boys in university education. In the work I did with parliamentarians, ministry officials and civil society, there was broad agreement about what to do to address these issues: change the norms around the value of girl's education; get more women teachers in rural areas and ensuring that school are accessible to girls.

But many of these issues were not addressed in already existing laws, and in fact, the 2005 law requiring a university degree for all teachers had the unintended consequence of decreasing the number of women teachers in rural areas. That's the kind of issue that needs to be thought through and that women and young people need to be part of. Being able to operationalize that knowledge is key to the future, and using the collective wisdom is important to ensuring that solutions really work to combat poverty, early marriage and build a better economic future.

We all know that when women can readily contribute to addressing the issues at hand, communities and countries thrive. This transitional moment can be a time for creating building blocks for a political, social and economic structure that brings people together, and works to forge a common set of goals and a common vision for Yemen. It's a hard road, but critically important.

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