Yemen: An Alternative Approach to the Challenges Posed by Fragile States

Yemen remains the only country in the world to have closed less than 50% of the gender gap, a figure which is deteriorating further each year.
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In a January 6, 2010, speech at the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke at length about the importance of development in the US long-term goals of global peace, security and equitable life. She called development "transformative," and "an essential leg in the three-legged stool of defense, diplomacy and development." "Global stability depends upon all three efforts with equal commitment" was her forceful message.

As part of that development effort, the Secretary specifically focused on the role of development for women and girls. They are front and center to a country or region's economic, political and social progress and play a role in ensuring a stable and secure environment. Countries' becoming incubators of extremism is one of the costs of not investing our resources and attention in helping fragile or failed states to develop economically, socially and politically. This must include a focus on women and girls and is a pillar in the US State Department's strategic and tactical plan going forward.

Yemen is a country now in the news. It is described in many places as a fragile state, almost a failed state, with weak governance and harsh conditions.

For now, because of the potentially horrific December 25, 2009, act of terrorism on the Delta Airlines flight, Yemen is under the microscope as a fertile ground for extremists to train and be indoctrinated into anti-American and anti-Western thought and action. The intelligence community refers to the urgent need to connect the dots. However, these dots need to have both immediate and long term connections.

One avenue of thought and discussion for long term "dot connecting" has not made much headline. This is the status of women in Yemen. It is, to not put too fine a point on it, not good. Yemen is one of the least-developed countries in the Arab world. The World Economic Forum presents a Gender Gap Index annually which ranks countries on the status of women in four areas: political, economic, health and education. In 2009 there were 134 countries with enough data to rank them. Yemen? At the bottom, ranked 134th out of 134 countries. Yemen has been at the bottom for all four of the years the Index has been published by the World Economic Forum. Most countries globally are showing some progress in closing the gaps between men and women. Yemen appears to have made no progress. Yemen remains the only country in the world to have closed less than 50% of the gender gap, a figure which is deteriorating further each year.

Saadia Zahidi, one of the Directors at the World Economic Forum and the primary architect of the Gender Gap Index, describes what it means in real life for women in Yemen to be ranked at the bottom: "Only 20% of births are attended by skilled health staff. Yemen has one of the largest primary school attendance gaps between boys and girls and one of the lowest female literacy rates globally (at 39% for females -- male literacy is 76%). Women make up 7% of the total labor force outside of agriculture."

Spousal rape is not recognized. The law criminalizes rape, but the government does not effectively enforce the law. The punishment for rape is imprisonment for up to 15 years, however, by year's end 2008, this had not been imposed in any rape case. There are no laws prohibiting sexual harassment. Fertility rates are at a high of 5.5 births per woman (most of Europe is under 2.0, US is 2.1, India is 2.8, Pakistan is 3.5). Polygamy is allowed and men are permitted to take as many as four wives. Segregation of the sexes from each other is often the norm. In 2009, there was only one woman in the 301-seat parliament. There were three women in the cabinet.

Mrs. Clinton observed (and many studies including the World Bank concur) that even one additional year in a girl's education reduces family size and improves the health of her children.

To help me make the connection between the development of women and girls and the threats of extremist action, I reference an opinion piece titled "Yemen's Coming Disaster" which the Los Angeles Times ran on January 5, 2010, by Richard Fontaine and Andrew Exum, both Fellows at the Center for a New American Security. The authors reflect on terrorism as just one of the threats the deteriorating situation in Yemen poses to US interests. Active insurgency in the north, separatist movement in the south and a resurgent Al Qaeda franchise inside its borders are difficult short-term challenges. These are the kind of challenges that the US intelligence world is focused upon almost completely.

The authors also state that the country's longer-term problems are likely to prove even tougher. The longer term problems include heavy dependency on oil production and revenue. "Yemen's population, already the poorest on the Arabian peninsula and with an unemployment rate of 35% is expected to double by 2035. An incredible 45% of Yemen's population is under the age of 15 ... This confluence of political, ideological, economic and environmental forces will render Yemen a fertile ground for the training and recruitment of Islamist militant groups for the foreseeable future."

These forces are all human-made and women and girls play a major role in which way the trends will go. Clear evidence shows that microfinance - small loans made to women - can help stimulate an economy, add jobs and move families out of poverty. Educating girls is the clearest causal link to lowering fertility rates. Women's presence in the political dialogue can add new and potentially less extreme voices to the public debate.

Secretary Clinton is correct. There are three legs to the stool of American strategy: defense, diplomacy and development. In the midst of the anguish and angst we feel about the danger to our security, part of the response and the resources must include development - of women and girls.

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