Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - Yemen

  • Author: Amal Basha, Rana Ghanem, Nabil Abdulhafid
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    14 October 2005

Population: 19,400,000
GDP Per Capita (PPP): $870
Economy: Capitalist-statist
Ranking on UN HDI: 149 out of 177
Polity: Dominant party (military-influenced) (traditional chiefs)
Literacy: Male 69.5% / Female 28.5%
Percent Women Economically Active: 30.8%
Date of Women's Suffrage: 1967
Women's Fertility Rate: 7.0
Percent Urban/Rural: Urban 26% / Rural 74%


Nondiscrimination and Access to Justice: 2.4
Autonomy, Security, and Freedom of the Person: 2.3
Economic Rights and Equal Opportunity: 2.3
Political Rights and Civic Voice: 2.6
Social and Cultural Rights: 2.1

(Scale of 1 to 5: 1 represents the lowest and 5 the highest level of freedom women have to exercise their rights)


Yemen is one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Middle East, with a history dating back nearly 3,000 years. From the 16th to the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire ruled many of Yemen's cities. A succession of Zaydi imams governed areas of northern Yemen until military officers launched a coup and established the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in 1962. South Yemen was under British control from 1839 until it gained its independence in 1967 and soon afterward became the Marxist-dominated People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). After the two parts of Yemen were united on May 22, 1990, in the Republic of Yemen, the country underwent unprecedented political reforms and took steps toward a democratic system of government.

In Yemen's first direct presidential elections, in September 1999, Ali Abdallah Salih, the former leader of the YAR, was elected to a second five-year term as president of the Republic of Yemen. Constitutional amendments on February 20, 2001, created a bicameral legislature consisting of a 111-seat Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council), to be appointed by the president, and a 301-member House of Representatives to be elected by popular vote. In the most recent parliamentary elections, held in April 2003, 19 political parties participated, including the president's dominant General People's Congress (GPC). The GPC monopolizes Yemen's politics, holding 237 seats in the current parliament. Corruption is an endemic problem at all levels of Yemen's government and society.

The United Nations considers Yemen one of the least developed countries (LDC); it ranks 149 out of 177 countries in the UNDP 2004 Human Development Index. Yemen is basically an agrarian society that depends heavily on a very limited quantity of oil exports to provide 80 percent of its public budget. Of Yemen's population of approximately 19.4 million, the youth population under the age of 15 makes up 46 percent. With an estimated poverty rate of 41 percent, Yemen has a birth growth rate of 3.5 percent, one of the highest in the world. An estimated 73 percent of Yemenis inhabit rural areas, most of which lack basic infrastructure and sufficient services. Most Yemenis are Sunni and Shi'a Muslims; those in the north and northwest of the country belong predominantly to the Zaidi sect of the Shi'a, while Yemenis in the south and southeast adhere for the most part to the Shafa'i school of Sunni Islam. Small numbers of Jews, Christians, and Hindus also live in Yemen.

Pre-Islamic and Islamic history demonstrate that women played significant roles and held high status in Yemeni culture. The Queen of Sheba is a source of pride for the Yemeni nation, as the Quran described her throne as great. Queen Arwa ruled Yemen in later Islamic history, which historians document as a time of prosperity and order due to the queen's attention to building water channels, schools, and agriculture. Nevertheless, Yemeni women today face many obstacles in their efforts to achieve gender equality and empowerment. Despite the constitutional and legal measures that guaranteed women's equality during the first four years of Yemen's unity (1990-1994), gradual legislative setbacks followed the country's 1994 civil war. Gender inequality in the law remains a major problem today, and legal implementation and protections for women are very poor. Women's equality continues to be impeded in a society in which social mores and norms are regulated by a largely agrarian, tribal, and patriarchal culture.

Yemeni women do not have access to most of their economic, social, and cultural rights and still face many challenges in exercising their full political and civil rights. Women are vastly underrepresented in the government and the labor field, and only 8.2 percent of women report paid employment. The government of Yemen does not have effective mechanisms to enforce the compulsory education law, and many families deny their daughters the right to education for cultural or economic reasons. A large percentage of rural families also marry their daughters at an early age. Gender inequalities in education persisted in 2002, with female literacy at only 28.5 percent, in contrast to the 69.5 percent rate for male literacy.


Article 41 of the 1990 unification constitution declared, "All citizens are equal before the law, and they are equal in public rights and duties, and there is no discrimination between them on the basis of sex, origin, language, profession, social position, or faith." However, amendments to this article in 1994 eliminated the text specifying the unconstitutionality of discrimination, and Article 41 now simply states "All citizens are equal in public rights and duties."

A further amendment to the unification constitution in 1994 involved the addition of Article 31, which declares, "Women are sisters of men and they have rights and duties as guaranteed by Shari'a and the law." This article has served as the foundation of a number of Yemen's discriminatory laws, with Yemen's male clergy and legislators citing the Shari'a as justification. The wording of Article 31 implies that women are not equal citizens but rather are sisters of male citizens. This article has serious repercussions for women's equality and empowerment in a culture in which males are typically viewed and treated as superior to females within the family. Furthermore, Article 31 is in direct contradiction to Article 41, which emphasizes the principle of equality among citizens in public rights before the law. Such legal inconsistency leaves the many issues covered under these two articles open to judicial selectivity and multiple interpretations by individual judges, which in turn, contributes to practices of discrimination against women and impedes their access to justice.

Yemen's legal system is based on Islamic law, Turkish law, English common law, and local tribal customary law. Due to women's limited access and minor participation in judicial institutions, the majority of lawmakers and law enforcement agents are men. While the 1994 constitution stipulates that all citizens are equal in rights and duties, a number of Yemeni laws, regulations, and policies are discriminatory against women, particularly those governing women's rights in the family that have been created by Yemeni legislators under the pretext of Islamic Shari'a. For example, women have fewer rights than men in Yemen's Personal Status Law, which governs matters of marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance.

Gender discrimination is present not only in Yemeni laws, but also in the implementation of laws, by-laws, and procedures, which may be subject to various interpretations and the personal whims of individual state agents and authorities. Discrimination is faced not only by women in Yemen, but also by ethnic minorities such as the community called Akhdam (servants), refugees from the Horn of Africa, and the small Jewish minority who remain in Yemen. The government has not instituted a formal complaint mechanism whereby an individual or group can file a report if they become victims of discrimination.

A Yemeni woman citizen is required to have the approval of the Minister of Interior, along with a written letter of approval from her guardian, in order to marry a non-Yemeni. Furthermore, Article 6 of the Nationality Law of 1990 denies Yemeni women married to foreigners the right to pass citizenship on to their children, while the children of a Yemeni man married to a foreign woman are guaranteed immediate Yemeni citizenship. In 2003, Article 3 of the Nationality Law was amended to grant children of a Yemeni woman and a foreign husband citizenship at the age of 18 on one of three conditions: the divorce of the mother from her foreign husband, his insanity, or the death of the husband.

Women are legally eligible to work in the judiciary and appear in court. However, women in Yemen face tremendous obstacles in their struggle to gain access to justice within a legal system that is overwhelmingly male-dominated at all levels. While women who pursue legal charges in the courts may occasionally encounter compassion from court officials, the majority of police and court officials view women clients with suspicion, due to the social stigma associated with a woman's presence in the courts.

Along with gender discrimination, factors such as women's high rates of illiteracy and poverty, lack of awareness of their rights, and absence from public life and the workforce, may serve to restrict women's access to justice. Furthermore, a socially short-sighted view of women, combined with financial and administrative corruption at almost all levels of the state and judiciary, pose obstacles to women's justice. Access to justice is particularly difficult for poor and rural women without a male guardian and for members of marginalized communities. Moreover, the infrastructure of Yemen's judicial system, with its overcrowded courtrooms and overburdened court dockets, further deters women's pursuit of litigation. As a result, women more often resort to informal mechanisms that involve their families and communities in order to address their problems; however, this often increases women's susceptibility to family pressures and perpetuates their lack of protection from family abuse.

A woman in Yemen is not recognized as a full person before the court; the testimony of two women equals the testimony of one man. Article 45 (21) of the 1992 Evidence Law forbids the testimony of women in cases of adultery, libel, theft, or sodomy. In general, the testimony of a woman must be supported by the testimony of a man in order to be accepted in court; yet, a woman's testimony is partially accepted in cases involving financial rights issues. The only time in which the testimony of a single woman is fully accepted is in cases in which Yemeni men are not culturally permitted to be present, such as during the delivery of a baby.

According to Article 12 of Yemen's 1994 Crime and Penalty Law, the value of the life of a woman or girl is equal to half that of a man or boy; therefore, financial compensation or blood money for a Yemeni female who is killed amounts to half that for a man who is killed. This disproportionate value system is also applied to victim compensation. For example, for the 27 crimes that involve attacks on the body, a surviving female victim is eligible to receive half the compensation that a male victim receives. Furthermore, Yemeni law provides greater leniency in punishments for men who commit so-called "honor killings" (violent assaults or murder of a female relative for her perceived immodest behavior, or when caught in the act of illicit fornication (zina)). Article 232 of law No. 12/1994 declares that a man who murders or injures his wife and/or her partner during the moment of their adultery (in flagrante delicto) should receive a maximum sentence of one year's imprisonment or a fine.

Women are treated differently from men in cases of detention, arrest, or seizure. Yemeni police officials tend to exhibit a greater degree of interest in cases involving women, and proceedings may be lengthened, particularly if the charges against a woman are of a "moral" nature such as zina, involving illicit sexual activity like adultery or prostitution. In some cases, the police may allow a male relative to report to the police station and be held in detention on behalf of a woman suspect. The special attention given to cases involving women is mostly due to the social stigma associated with a woman who is arrested or imprisoned. Socially, a woman's incarceration is considered a great disgrace to her family, much more so than a man's imprisonment. Special treatment is not normally provided to women members of marginalized or powerless social communities, like the Akhdam or refugees, and is generally reserved for women of a high social and economic class.

By law, detainees must be arraigned within 24 hours of arrest or be released. Nevertheless, both men and women sometimes wait for long periods before being allowed access to legal proceedings or a lawyer. Women reportedly receive longer punishments than men for crimes such as zina or khilwa. Khilwa is not specifically mentioned in Yemen's new penal code, but the former YAR penal code defines it as "the unjustified meeting between an adult male and an adult female who are not close relatives." There are also reports of women being detained for behavior considered improper but that may not fit within a clear legal definition. A woman arrested for crimes such as khilwa or improper acts outside legal definition may be considered guilty without an investigation and sent to prison by the police even before any legal procedures begin.

South Yemen first ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in May 1984 before unification, with reservations to provision number 29 regarding the issue of arbitration. National laws in South Yemen were reasonably compatible with the convention. While the country's ratification of CEDAW still remained valid under the unified Yemen, unified national laws were not amended to conform to the standards of CEDAW.

Although women's NGOs and civil society groups have created some social momentum and broadened an awareness of women's issues, they have not yet achieved necessary reforms or the eradication of discriminatory laws. Yemen's independent women's rights groups that advocate for legal rights, greater public awareness, and women's equality issues are small and lack the resources, funds, and equipment to launch national-level campaigns.

As a follow-up to the 1995 Beijing Platform of Action, gender affairs departments were created in most government ministries by 1999. Nevertheless, these departments have not been very active, due to inadequate human and financial resources and limited decision-making authority. The Supreme Council for Women's Affairs and its consultative, executive, and administrative body, the Women's National Committee, are the main government entities that aim to enhance women's status and integrate women's issues into governmental affairs, acting as advocates for women's rights within the state system.

An increasingly powerful extremist religious movement contributes to the restrictions on women's rights advocacy in Yemen. Growing support for the extremist movement began soon after the Saudi Arabian government expelled thousands of Yemeni workers during the second Gulf War of 1991, as a result of Yemen's support of Iraq. Returning workers imported practices and beliefs of Saudi Arabia's strict form of Wahabbi Islam, which have since gained momentum and become a powerful tool against women's efforts toward equality. To compensate for a lack of freedom of expression, women's rights advocates have carefully adopted an enlightened and progressive religious discourse in which to promote women's human rights. Advocacy for equality and gender empowerment is most often conducted in reference to Islam, rather than the language of international human rights conventions, in order to avoid accusations of promoting western agendas.


  1. The government should work with Yemeni women's rights organizations and legislators to amend all laws that discriminate against women.
  2. The government should establish nationwide complaint mechanisms for women to access if they are discriminated against on the basis of their gender.
  3. The government and women's rights NGOs should implement women's rights awareness programs to educate women on their rights and protections under Yemen's laws and constitution.
  4. The government should remove all reservations to CEDAW and take steps to implement it locally by bringing national laws in conformity with CEDAW.


Yemen's population is predominantly Muslim (Sunni and Shi'a), with a small Jewish, Christian, and Hindu minority who are free to practice their religions. Conversion from Islam to another religion is forbidden for all Muslims, and according to Yemen's laws, a person found doing so will be considered an apostate and killed. However, no such executions for religious conversion have been reported in Yemen.

Both family traditions and Yemeni laws may serve to restrict a woman's freedom of movement. Women are not legally permitted a passport without the approval of their guardians (wali), but women with passports are legally allowed to travel without their guardian's permission. Law enforcement officers, however, will often breach this law and restrict a woman's right to travel if her guardian disapproves and reports her to the authorities. In addition, while such actions are not legally permitted, a woman's guardian can prevent her from seeking an education or employment and may even restrict her ability to leave the home without permission.

South Yemen's progressive family code of 1974 provided women greater rights in matters of divorce, marriage, and custody than the family code of North Yemen. However, the government of the newly unified Yemen implemented a new Personal Status Law in 1992 that opted to integrate the more conservative and discriminatory laws that had previously applied under North Yemen's family codes, annulling women's equal rights under South Yemen's family code of 1974.

According to the unified Personal Status Law, a woman's guardian must conclude her marriage contract, and if a woman does not have a guardian, she may delegate a judge to sign the marriage contract on her behalf. A man, however, is entitled to conclude his own marriage contract. In theory, a woman can negotiate her marriage contract if her fiancé agrees to the conditions, such as allowing a woman to continue her education or employment after marrying; however, in reality, this does not frequently occur.

The Personal Status Law does not establish a minimum age of marriage for boys or girls, thus encouraging early and child marriage. Little research has been conducted on the percentage of girls married at an early age in Yemen; however, early marriage is a serious problem and a widespread phenomenon that can lead to serious health problems for girls. The law requires a non-virgin (usually a woman who has been previously married) to pronounce her consent to marriage verbally, while the law allows the silence of a girl or woman considered to be a virgin to signify her approval or consent to marriage. In practice, most judges do not verify the consent of a woman, and a majority of marriages take place at home, not in the courts. A man is allowed to be married to up to four women at one time in Yemen, and the law does not require him to obtain permission from his first wife or inform her of the other marriages.

Women do not have the same rights to divorce as men. A husband can divorce his wife at any time without needing to provide any justification, whereas a woman must litigate in court and present adequate justification in order to have the marriage contract nullified. Article 47 of the amended Personal Status Law provides women with the right to have their marriage contract nullified but only under the condition that the woman's husband has a defect or dangerous disease, which according to Yemeni laws includes such disorders as tuberculosis, leprosy, insanity, or castration. However, the court must agree to nullify the marriage contract; the wife may not do this on her own. Meanwhile, a man has the right to restore his relations with the wife who is divorcing him within the period of edda (a waiting period of three months before a divorce becomes legal) without her consent. This waiting period is mandatory and is intended to ensure that the wife is not pregnant by the husband she is divorcing. Yemeni law does not consider a woman's marriage to another man valid if it is performed before the conclusion of the period of edda.

Personal Status Law No. 20, amended in 1998, obligates wives to yield to the authority of their husbands. A wife is required to reside where her husband resides, no matter what the condition of the residence, and she is legally obligated to do the housework. In 2003, a legal statement of Bait Al-Ta'a (the House of Obedience) that had previously been passed by the parliament in 2001 was proposed for ratification. The legal implications of Bait Al-Ta'a would have been to authorize judges to use force to require married women to return to their conjugal homes against their will. After a nationwide campaign and extensive advocacy efforts by women's NGOs, Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights (SAF), and select government officials, the legal statement was canceled.

While the trafficking of women in Yemen has not been a problem in the past, there are indications that it may become one. Little information on this crime is available, but cases have been reported of children trafficked within Yemen and to Saudi Arabia for child labor, as well as an increasing number of women trafficked to Yemen for prostitution, some of whom may have originated in Iraq. Yemeni law does not specifically prohibit trafficking in persons, and protections for victims have not yet been established, but several other Yemeni statutes are being used to prosecute traffickers.

Generally speaking, the conditions of both men's and women's prisons are very poor, and health conditions are unsatisfactory. Prisoners are mistreated and suffer from extrajudicial torture, which is in violation of the constitution. By custom, children and babies born in prison usually remain with their mothers. Recently, the Prisons Law was slightly amended to stipulate that "pregnant women in prison must have access to medical care before and after delivery." Accordingly, women who are pregnant and/or breast-feeding are exempted from punitive measures inside prisons.

Although there is no such law in Yemen, as a matter of cultural practice, Yemeni prison officials do not release women who have completed their sentences unless they can be released into the custody of a male family member. Partly due to the shame and social stigma associated with women in prison, many women who have served their time continue to wait for male family members to appear and authorize their release. Prison guards have been known to both impregnate women during their incarceration and marry off female inmates to men who bribe the guards. While the government began to take some measures a few years ago to remedy women's situations in prison, the state has mostly turned a blind eye to their plight. There are no state-sponsored services to help women reintegrate back into society once they have completed their sentences. In addition to Yemenis, a number of women inmates from neighboring African countries, particularly Ethiopia, languish in prisons past the expiration of their sentences.

There are no legal protections for women who suffer from domestic violence in Yemen. While a married woman may report acts of violence against her committed at the hands of her husband, a physical trace of the violence must be visible on her body. In the case of violence perpetrated by a husband, the court may rule for material compensation for the wife, according to the judge's discretion. An unmarried girl living in her father's home, however, has no legal recourse against abuse by a family member unless her legal guardian brings the charges.

Women may experience various forms of street violence in Yemen, particularly verbal harassment. Social norms in Yemen most often place the burden of proper social behavior on women instead of their male harassers. Verbal harassment serves to humiliate women and often leads families to prohibit daughters and women from leaving the home. Many women prefer to appear anonymous in public in order to avoid harassment and the resulting embarrassment felt by their families. Most Yemeni women fully cover their bodies in a black dress with their faces veiled except for the eyes. Very few women expose their faces, and those who uncover their hair are rare. While the veil is not legally imposed, some extremist religious groups exert pressure on women to veil as part of their duties as "good" Muslim women. Unveiled women face harassment and are strongly criticized.

While both women and their families may experience harassment on the streets, the government has failed to increase the availability of safe and affordable transportation for the many Yemenis limited by poverty. Another factor contributing to restrictions on women's freedom and safety in public space is the absence of protective laws and a lack of law enforcement officials on the street to deter violence directed at women. Despite the efforts of women's rights groups to demand improved access for women to safe transportation, the government continues to allow logistical and financial restrictions to perpetuate women's social obstacles.


  1. The government should increase the minimum age of marriage to 18 years to help girls complete their high school education and protect them from early and forced marriages, and initiate campaigns to increase awareness of the harmful effects of early marriage.
  2. The government should create adequate prison facilities for women and allow human rights organizations and individuals to monitor their conditions.
  3. The government should introduce laws to criminalize domestic violence against women in Yemen and work with women's NGOs to establish shelters and counseling services for women victims of violence.


Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the region. Declines in oil prices served to stunt the economic growth of the 1990s. Yemen has embarked on an International Monetary Fund (IMF)-supported structural adjustment program designed to modernize and streamline the economy. However, high population growth, scarce resources, and political corruption challenge economic advances. An estimated 35 percent of the population is unemployed, and the illiteracy rate in Yemen remains as high as 47.2 percent.

While no legal obstacles prevent women from having full use or ownership of their property, widespread illiteracy, patriarchal attitudes, and women's ignorance of their economic rights have produced a situation in which a majority of women hand over the administration of their possessions and property to their husbands or brothers. Most women, especially in rural areas, do not know about their property and inheritance rights, nor do they know how to gain access to them or use them. The government has not initiated programs for rural women to provide them with basic information on their economic or human rights.

Women legally have full and independent use of their incomes, but in practice, fathers and husbands may partially or completely control that income. Women, however, are not legally obligated to spend money on family needs, while a man is obligated to provide financially both for his family and for his wife's relatives if they are destitute.

Yemen's inheritance laws are in accordance with the country's interpretation of Islam, which suggests that a daughter and a wife should receive half the share inherited by a son and a husband. In Yemen's rural areas however, women are sometimes deprived of their full inheritance without their knowledge and without legal justification. Some wealthier families may forbid their daughters to marry anyone outside the family in order to protect their properties from being transferred to another family.

No legal provisions prevent women from participating in business, commercial, or economic activities at any level. However, social pressures work to ensure that women are monitored and criticized for "unconventional behaviors" that may fall outside the societal customs and traditions, including women's involvement in economic entrepreneurship. As a result, women's role in Yemen's commercial and economic activities is still relatively weak.

Article 54 of the 2001 Yemen constitution declares education compulsory, yet the government does not translate this provision into practice. Yemen has one of the highest gaps in the world between the net primary school attendance rates of boys and of girls. In rural areas, only 30 percent of girls, as compared to 73 percent of boys, are enrolled in primary school. The main impediments to women's education are poverty and a social bias in which parents prefer to send sons to school and to avoid placing their daughters in a mixed-gender environment. Early marriage also plays a significant role in women's high dropout rate. Additionally, there are not enough schools to meet the needs of girls' education, especially in rural areas.

While there are no legal restrictions against women's education at any level, some technical institutes and schools do not admit women. The High Judicial Institute does not allow women, for example, which makes it practically impossible for women to be trained as judges. Women account for 25 percent of the total number of university students. An estimated 50 percent of women at the university level are in the field of education.

The Labor Law of 1995 provides safeguards prohibiting discrimination against women in the workforce, but in practice such discrimination is common, and preference in hiring goes to men. Only a limited number of job skills centers and job opportunities are available for women in Yemen, and the government has undertaken no systematic efforts to provide job-training skills for women in the schools or to promote income-generating programs for rural women.

While only a few professions are legally off-limits to women's employment, a woman's family will most often determine the field in which she works. No legal or administrative remedies are available to women who are prohibited by their families from pursuing the profession of their choice. The state relegates its duties to protect the rights of Yemen's female citizens to the male members of families.

The government of Yemen does not allow women to join the army, although a few women recently graduated from the police academy and are eligible to fill positions in airports, prisons, and police stations to inspect women. Women have also started to work in shops and are able to work as engineers in offices. Social customs keep women from holding positions as taxi drivers or employees in construction or building projects. The socially preferred professions for women are teaching and medicine. Nevertheless, due to widespread corruption, employment opportunities for both men and women are often limited by nepotism and favoritism.

According to a report released by the National Women's Committee in 2004, Yemeni women represent 24.6 percent of the workforce. Nearly 86 percent of women in the workforce are in the agricultural sector, and most women work in the informal and unregulated sector. Many women are involved in non-wage work; the Women's National Committee reports that only 8 percent of women are employed in paid jobs. Women make up 28 percent of the employees in the private sector, but only 9.3 percent in the civil service and public sector.

No laws protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace. Female employees who are subject to sexual harassment at work often choose to remain silent in fear of damage to their reputations or the loss of their jobs. If a woman reports harassment to her superior, the matter will be subject to that individual's judgment, due to the lack of applicable rules or regulations. Economic hardships and the high rate of unemployment eliminate this risk as an option for women workers.

Pregnant women are granted 60 days of maternity leave with full pay and 20 additional days in the case of a caesarian delivery or the birth of twins. Articles 43 and 45 of Yemen's labor laws reduce a woman's working hours from eight to five hours starting from the sixth month of pregnancy and continuing up until six months following the delivery. Yemen's labor laws also stipulate that any institution or company with more than 50 female employees must set up a children's nursery.

Organizations working to improve women's economic rights in Yemen have succeeded in raising awareness of the importance of women's education and women's participation in the workforce and have achieved some minor amendments to Yemen's laws. Yet despite this progress, women's organizations involved in women's economic rights are still relatively ineffective and have not made a significant impact due to their lack of technical skills and financial resources. Facilitating loans and expanding women's access to credit requires investments from the government and society – not, apparently, a state priority.


  1. The government, in collaboration with women's organizations, schools, and donors should launch job development training programs for women and facilitate loans for small enterprises to help increase women's participation in the labor market.
  2. The government should enact a law to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace.
  3. The government should work in cooperation with NGOs, media, educators, politicians, and religious groups to launch a national campaign to combat illiteracy among women, particularly rural women and girls.
  4. The government should increase the number of schools for girls, and increase the availability of safe transportation for students and teachers.


The constitution of unified Yemen, ratified in May 1991, confirmed the principles of the peaceful transfer of power, freedom of association, freedom to form political parties, and respect for freedom of speech and expression. Immediately after the 1990 unification, at least 48 political parties and many newspapers were established. Yemen is one of the few countries in the Arab world to organize regular elections at the national and local levels. On the surface, Yemen appears to have a relatively democratic system, yet in reality, the ruling party, the GPC, monopolizes Yemen's politics. While Yemeni legislation guarantees women equal political and civil rights, women remain greatly underrepresented in Yemen's political life. The government still cites Yemen's traditions and customs as justification for its failure to take affirmative steps to ensure women's political participation.

According to Article 58 of the constitution, Yemenis have the right to form associations, and respect for this right is evident in the presence of several thousand NGOs. However, Yemen's 2003 Law of Demonstrations and Strikes limits peaceful demonstrations by requiring groups to obtain advance permission from the Minister of Interior, declare the time and place of the demonstration, and pledge not to cause any material damages. These provisions were added in reaction to a series of violent demonstrations – some of which were political, while others protested economic conditions and governmental policies related to the IMF structural adjustment program. Women in Yemen, however, rarely participate in public demonstrations because societal norms and the country's conservative culture reserve this space for men.

While freedom of expression is guaranteed under Article 42 of the constitution, journalists practice self-censorship in order to adhere to Article 103 of the Press and Publications Law. Article 103 outlaws direct personal criticism of the head of state and the publication of material that might lead to dissent among the Yemeni people, contradict the principles of the Yemeni Revolution, or distort the image of the Yemeni, Arab, or Islamic heritage. Prosecutors have filed a number of lawsuits against journalists and newspapers over the years, targeting those affiliated with the political opposition. Sentences for libel range from suspension and fines to imprisonment. In 2003, when the Syndicate of Journalists demanded a halt to the harassment and sentencing of journalists, the president declared that imprisonment for journalists would be stopped in 2004. Women journalists have not specifically been targeted for harassment as a result of their gender; only one female journalist was interrogated in 1999 for reporting on a sensitive political issue. The proportion of female journalists registered with the syndicate is an estimated 10 percent of the total number of journalists.

The General Election and Referendum Law respects women's rights to participate in parliamentary elections as voters and candidates. The number of women registered to vote increased from 15 percent of the total electorate in 1993 to 42 percent in the 2003 parliamentary elections. However, the number of female candidates saw a remarkable downturn, decreasing from 41 women candidates in 1993 to only 11 out of 1,400 candidates in the 2003 parliamentary elections. The number of women in parliament also declined from 11 (all members of the former parliament of South Yemen) in 1990 to 2 women in the parliaments of 1993 and 1997 to only 1 woman in the 301-member parliament in 2003. Moreover, only 2 women have been appointed to the 111-member Shura Council. In local councils, women comprise a low 0.6 percent of the total membership.

In 2001, SAF – a leading Yemeni NGO – and civil society leaders organized a national campaign for changes to the draft Election Law and demanded the adoption of a quota system of 30 percent minimum representation for women. Three years later, the Women's National Committee joined the movement and campaigned for the institution of a quota system for women.

Women are vastly underrepresented in the judiciary; estimates range from a low of 4 to a high of 32 total women judges as compared with 1,200 male judges. Most women judges work in primary courts, and no criminal issues are referred to them. No new women judges have been appointed since the proclamation of unity in 1990.

Women's representation in governmental bodies remains nominal. While there is no shortage of highly educated women to fill senior-level appointments, the government seems to appoint only from among a select group of women. The same woman who was Yemen's first female ambassador now serves as the Minister of Human Rights, the only woman in Yemen's 35-member cabinet. Two women have been appointed as deputy ministers, and there are currently no women ambassadors.

The law guarantees men and women the right to form political parties and organizations. However, women's membership in political parties is very low, and the representation of women in upper leadership positions within parties does not exceed 2 percent.

Women's participation in civic life is limited, and women's influence on policy development and decision making remains weak. Most meetings of official institutions, syndicates, and associations are held in all-male qat sessions in the afternoons, where women are forbidden by social custom. Qat chewing is a national pastime for men in Yemen; it is an exclusively male function and privilege in public. Women's exclusion from qat sessions serves to impede their effective participation in the political arena. Women's rights groups are not demanding to chew qat in such sessions with men but are rather advocating for the establishment of improved professional and social standards and processes for the deliberation of key political issues in place of qat sessions.

The law does not infringe upon women's freedom to seek information; however, women's access is limited. Most women do not benefit from the print media because of their lack of literacy, and television does not reach the entire country. This is largely because electrical power reaches only 30.5 percent of Yemeni land, while rural access to electricity is only 13.2 percent. The government occasionally censors media information by confiscating magazines and newspapers and suppressing sensitive political articles. Some Web sites are also suppressed for political and moral reasons. Women's exclusion from the social and official meetings held during qat sessions is a further factor serving to isolate them from equal networking opportunities, information sharing, and opinion exchange.


  1. The government should ensure free, competitive, and democratic elections that are open to all political parties, which include the full and equal participation of women at all levels of the political process.
  2. The government should work with women's organizations to adopt a quota system to enable women to participate in legislative and executive councils.
  3. The government should prohibit qat chewing in all governmental meetings.
  4. The government and international organizations should offer technical and financial support to Yemeni NGOs that are working in the field of women's political rights.


The state of women's health in Yemen is among the poorest in the world. The Yemeni government spends a low 3.4 percent of its annual general budget on the health sector. There are 4,185 people per doctor and 1,589 people per hospital bed. Women from rural areas particularly suffer from limited access to reproductive health care; reproductive health services are limited primarily to the main cities, and the few health centers available are of poor quality. Most women give birth at home, contributing to Yemen's high rate of maternal mortality. The proportion of mothers who receive health care during pregnancy in the cities is 61 percent, while only 27 percent of women in the rural areas receive care.

No legal provisions guarantee women's freedom to make decisions about their health or reproductive rights. A husband often controls a woman's choices regarding the number of children she will have, the length of time between births, and the use of contraceptives, as well as whether or not she may visit a hospital or undergo surgery. There are no sexual education programs, and Yemeni law prohibits sexual relations outside marriage. The share of married women using contraceptives was 23 percent in 2003. Abortion is illegal, except in cases involving serious health risks for the mother.

Some harmful traditional practices still exist in Yemen, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), which is often performed during the first 40 days after a girl's birth. This widespread tradition is practiced predominantly in the coastal areas of Aden, Hadramout, Mahra, Hudiedah, and Taiz. While the Ministry of Public Health issued a decree banning FGM in official health centers, the state has remained silent on FGM practiced by traditional women in private places.

The Family Law in South Yemen before unity, stipulated that the conjugal house would be allocated to the wife if a couple divorced and she maintained custody of the children. However, this law was repealed after unity, and today a woman must already have ownership of the conjugal home in order to maintain possession of it for herself and her children after divorce.

Women remain underrepresented in the media, constituting only 18.6 percent of employees working in television and radio stations. Most media institutions do not have any women in senior positions. The one woman who holds the post of Deputy Minister of Information is the same woman currently serving as the Minister of Human Rights. The government exclusively runs Yemen's broadcast media, including television and radio. Women in the media are generally stereotyped, with most images portraying women in limited and glorified roles as mothers and housewives.

The proportion of families in Yemen living under the Food Poverty Line is 17.5 percent, while 41.8 percent of the population lives under the Upper Poverty Line (education, health, and clothing poverty). Poverty was exacerbated in 1994 by state-implemented restructuring and privatization programs. Few statistics on poverty are available disaggregated by gender, but women seem to be disproportionately affected by poverty as a result of higher rates of illiteracy and social discrimination and segregation. The Women's National Committee reported that of the families living below the poverty line, 13 percent are women-headed households, and the average income of a family headed by a woman is one-third less than that of families headed by men.

The ability of Yemen's women's groups to advocate for women's rights is often constrained by extremist religious leaders and some extremist religious parties who severely criticize and defame women's groups by citing the Islamic Shari'a as justification for their condemnation. At the same time, an enlightened movement has begun in Yemeni civil society to reinterpret women's rights within the Shari'a, finding the Shari'a to be in accord with full and equal rights for women and men. Their advocacy highlights the ways in which various interpretations of Quranic text, the influence of patriarchal cultural practices, and the authoritarian nature of the ruling political ideologies negatively affect Muslim women's abilities to exercise their human rights.


  1. The government should work in cooperation with the media and NGOs to adopt policies aimed at changing the image of women in the media.
  2. The government should facilitate practical coordination between governmental and non-governmental organizations concerned with women's issues in the area of housing and allocate resources for housing programs to meet the needs of all Yemeni women.
  3. The government should increase budget allocations for the public health sector, with special attention and funding going to reproductive healthcare and women's health needs in rural areas.
  4. The government should develop support services, including programs to build skills, obtain credit, and increase financial literacy, to help Yemeni women who are most exposed to social marginalization and poverty, including female heads of households, women with disabilities, and poor women who are divorced or widowed.

AUTHORS: Amal Basha is a human rights activist and a trainer in the fields of gender, development, and human rights. She serves as chairperson of the Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights (SAF) in Yemen, and is a regional coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Region for the International Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC). She holds an MA in international development and gender and has extensive working experience with UNDP, UNIFEM, the EU, and the ICRC.

Assistance on this report provided by researchers Rana Ghanem, Media and External Relations Officer of SAF, and Nabil Abdulhafid, Secretary General of Yemen Democratic and Social Forum.


[Refworld note: source files did not contain inline references to these notes; they have been included to enable further reading and research.]

1. Constitutional amendments in 2000 extended the presidential term by two years. The next presidential elections will be held in 2006.

2. "The April 27, 2003 Parliamentary Elections in the Republic of Yemen" (Washington, D.C.: National Democratic Institute for International Affairs [NDI], 2003), http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/1701_yem_elect-rep.pdf.

3. The UNDP Human Development Index considers such factors as life expectancy at birth, adult literacy rate, combined gross enrollment in schools, and GDP per capita.

4. "National Report on Women's Status in Yemen (Beijing + 10)" (Sana'a: Women's National Committee [WNC], submitted to UN Economic and Social Council for Western Asia [ESCWA], May 2004).

5. Table 24, "Gender-related development index," in Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World (New York: United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2004), 217-220. http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2004/.

6. Yemeni constitution, Article 27 (1990).

7. Yemeni constitution, Article 40 (1994).

8. Yemeni constitution, Article 31 (1994).

9. The World Factbook-Yemen (Springfield, VA: U.S. Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], 2003).

10. Arabic word for servants. Akhdams are descendants of Abyssinian soldiers who stayed in Yemen after a failed invasion in the 6th century AD. They are limited to such jobs as disposing of human waste and collecting garbage and do not have access to most social services. There are few efforts by government to integrate them.

11. Ahamed Al-Wadei, "Discrimination against women in the laws" (Sana'a: Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights [SAF], study submitted 2003).

12. Lynn Welchman, "Extracted Provisions from the Penal Codes of Arab States Relevant to 'Crimes of Honour'" (Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Laws/International Center for the Legal Protection of Human Rights: Project on Strategies to Address 'Crimes of Honour'; [CIMEL/INTERIGHTS] University of London, School of African and Oriental Studies), http://www.soas.ac.uk/honourcrimes/Mat_ArabLaws.htm.

13. "Integration of the Human Rights of Women and the Gender Perspective: Violence Against Women" (New York: United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, 56th session, 27 January 2000).

14. The wali is usually the woman's father, or in his absence, her brother, uncle, or other close male relative.

15. "Trafficking in Persons Report" (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, 14 June 2004).

16. Prisons Law, Article 27, amendment, 2003.

17. Yemen in Figures (Sana'a: Central Statistical Organization), 4.

18. "Persistent Inequalities" (New York: UNDP, Yemen Country Profile, 2002), http://www.undp.org.ye/Inequalities.htm.

19. "Yemen" (Beirut: ESCWA, Country Profiles, 2003), http://www.escwa.org.lb/divisions/ecw/profile/yemen/main.html.

20. "Beijing +10" (WNC, 2004).

21. "Yemen Strategic Report 2003" (Sana'a: Yemen Centre for Strategic Studies [YCSS]), 191.

22. The Women's National Committee reports the presence of 32 female judges versus 1,200 male judges.

23. "Yemen Strategic Report 2003" (YCSS), 178.

24. The leaves of the shrub Catha edulis, which are chewed like tobacco or used to make tea; has the effect of a euphoric stimulant.

25. Report of Women's National Committee (Sana'a: 2003), 79.

26. Yemen in Figures 2002 (Sana'a: Central Organization of Statistics), 5.

27. Ibid., 10.

28. "Beijing + 10" (WNC, 2004).

29. Ibid.

30. Report of Women's National Committee (Sana'a: 2003), 80.

31. "Beijing + 10" (WNC, 2004).

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