Society of Yemen

Though rapidly urbanizing, Yemen is still a very rural country. Nearly three quarters of the population leads a traditional, rural life in sometimes very remote mountain villages. Poverty is widespread, social injustice is deep. Begging is common in the streets of the big cities. Women are denied an equal position in society. Healthcare is improving fast.


According to international figures, throughout modern times, Yemen was the poorest Arab state, the poorest state of the Middle East, and one of the poorest states of Asia. Perhaps it is better to compare Yemen with African standards of living. In 2007, Yemen ranked 153 on the UN poverty index of 177 states, surpassing only twenty four African countries. The average annual income officially stands at $760. Close to half the population (45%) lives on less then $2 a day, a third only has $1 or less to spend a day.

The disparities in Yemen are great. Judging by the figures, the rural population is poor, but is largely self-sufficient, with home produce to fall back on. The situation is worse for the urban poor, for whom there is no escape from hunger. Beggars are common in the streets of Yemeni cities. Hungry people wait for leftovers outside roadside restaurants. The situation has barely improved during the past two decades, any improvement being outweighed by the strong population growth.

That said, there are also many wealthy inhabitants and a growing middle class. A significant portion of the oil money, qat profits and remittances from expatriate workers goes unrecorded, but feeds the informal economy all the same. As a result, the informal economy dominates Yemen.

Castes and Social Classes

Though most Yemenis are of tribal origin, it is possible to make some distinctions as regards social classes. There is a small upper class of Zaidi Ashraf sayyids. These are all Hashemites, descendants of the Prophet’s family (Sharif, Ashraf). They are considered wise and learned men, and are traditionally consulted in important matters. The power and influence of this group is somewhat diminishing as a consequence of the Zaidi guerrilla in the North. There is another small upper class of cadis, or religious judges.

Most Yemenis – the people or al sha’ab – are tribal. Traditional tribals may commute to towns and cities during business hours or for longer periods, but remain attached and faithful to their territorial power base in tribal areas. Urban tribals are slowly transforming into a large middle class with tribal roots. Urban tribals are dominant towards the south, where some families have turned into oligarchies rather than tribal groups.

At the bottom of the social pyramid there are two groups, the Akhdam and the Mazayy’na. The Akhdam – of African roots and appearance – form an underclass, spending their days sweeping the streets and cleaning cities throughout Yemen. Estimates on the number of Akhdam variate between half a million and three million. The Mazayy’na is a lesser known, small group of tribal Yemenis, who perform service duties for their fellow tribal villagemen. They earn a living as hairdressers, butchers and as servicemen in the hammams. Both groups can be categorized as castes; escape from their social position – through intermarriage with other groups or otherwise – is impossible.


Until the revolution of 1962, education was the privilege of an elite offspring of sayyids and cadis. Only a few schools existed. Since the revolution, schools have been built across the country, educating new generations. Today, just over half of all Yemeni adults are literate, with women catching up rapidly through adult illiteracy eradication centres in all cities and major towns. Yemini urban population enjoys an average of six years of schooling, rural Yeminis an average of 2.2 years. Broken down according to gender, these figures are 5.35 years for men and 1.45 years for women (figures 1999).

However, Yemen’s education system is improving through the building of schools across the country. Schools in Yemen are found on hilltops inbetween villages and are used intensively. Morning sessions are usually for primary pupils, afternoons for the older children. Fees are limited to a few hundred riyals (a few dollars) per year, plus the cost of a school uniform. Over three quarters of all smaller children now enter primary school (figures 2005). Most of the boys finish primary school. For girls this is different, only half of the 64% girls (up from 45% in 2001) who enrol actually finish school, the rest dropping out at the first sign of womanhood.

Only 21% of all girls and 45% of all boys continue on to secondary education. These figures drop to 5% and 18% for tertiary education. It is unclear whether children belonging to the Akhdam underclass are educated, and if so, how many. It is an unwritten rule that the Akhdam do not qualify for social services, few Yemenis wanting, or allowing their children, to mix with them.


Yemen’s official labour force is small. As there is no central system for recording and analyzing data, figures regarding the Yemeni economy are very unreliable. Unemployment estimates variate between 7% and 45%. In 2005, a consultant of the Ministry of Works estimated the number of workers at roughly five million, of whom one million are unemployed. These figures sound fairly feasible.

Given that half the population is aged under fifteen, theoretically close to 700.000 young people join the labour market annually. However, most Yemenis still work on their own land (52%, figure 2006) or are partially (self-)employed in the informal sector. Of all Yemeni women, 60% work unpaid, mostly on their own lands.


Yemeni law places women on an equal stand in society. But traditions often impede the execution of these laws. For instance, women enjoy freedom of travel according to the law. But unmarried women are often stopped and turned back at airports if they are not accompanied by a male relative. Married women need their husband’s consent to travel abroad. Women’s wages are only 30% of that of men.

That said, women hold much promise for Yemen. Girls often do better at school, as a professional career is the best way to achieve independence. Also, as girls are not supposed to hang around, they have ample time to study. Most office work is performed by women, although their superior is usually still a man. The acceptance of women in managerial and political positions is small. Early 2008, an opinion poll indicated that 53% of the respondents (of whom three quarters were educated young males) opposed the election of a female mayor in Sana’a.

In 2006, the ruling General People’s Congress made it one of their goals to integrate more women into the economy, setting a target of 15% of all government positions. However, a time frame for this target was not formulated. Women represent 22% of the total labour force. For the informal economy this figure is 38%, while the female segment of the formal public sector is only 9%.

Banner: “I will keep on emphasizing we have this 15% target. My male colleagues have to employ more women at their ministries. It is a slow process. I sometimes find it too slow. But you have to realise that women have only been getting educated the past forty years.” (Amat Al-Razzaq Hommad, Minister for Labour and Social Affairs, on the issue of women development)

As women – involuntarily or not – lead a life separate from the male population, solidarity is strong. There are two official women movements, the National Women Committee and the Yemen Women Union, both financially supported by (and integrated in) the government. In some Yemeni towns women organize themselves in more grassroots women centres, where they are educated or learn a craft or trade. This offers them an opportunity to earn their own income, and achieve more independence in the household.


Yemeni girls generally do not get much room for self-development. The percentage of ‘idle girls’ (fourteen years old, neither in school or at work) in Yemen is the highest in the world: 44% (boys 18%), with an urban-rural split of 18% and 52% (figures World Development Report (wdr) 2007). In most families, girls are taken from school at a young age, preparing for maternity. In the last decades, the average marriage age for girls has risen from ten to fifteen years (for men from 21 to 21.5), though child marriage in Yemen still reaches 52% for girls (7% for boys, figures WDR 2006).

One in seven girls gets married before reaching the age of fourteen. In 2008, an amendment proposed by the National Women Committee to raise the minimum marriage age to eigtheen years was rejected by Parliament. Geographical variations are great. In Mukalla (south coast), the average marriage age is ten, while in Hodaydah and Hadhramawt it is eight (figures 2006). In the larger cities, however, modernization is taking big steps. Girls are now entering the public space – the streets – in fast growing numbers, although they remain veiled and are a minority.

Box: “I will not divorce her, and it is my right to keep her. No need to sleep with her, at least I can have her as a wife. No power can stop me,” the husband, Faez Ali Thamer, said in the Yemen Times of 13 April 2008, about the case filed against him by his eight-year-old wife, Nujood Ali, after being physically and sexually abused for two months by her new husband. The court ordered separation two days later. “There are hundreds of Nujoods who have been subjected to sexual abuse by mature men. The problem is that there is no law to punish the father who marries off the child, the sheikh who allows the marriage, or the husband who takes the child home to serve him as a wife,” said Shatha Mohammed Nasser, the girl’s lawyer.


Healthcare in Yemen was virtually non-existent until the 1960s. Many hospitals and medical outposts have been built, and thousands of doctors and health workers have been educated since. However, many rural Yemenis live in isolated villages, hours away from medical assistance. The knowledge on health issues in the rural areas is still very limited. As a consequence, there are regular outbreaks of diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera, and periodic outbreaks of polio, rift fever and bird flue. More than half the population – living in the lower mountains and along the coast – is prone to malaria, resulting in 30.000 deaths a year. There are just over 2.000 reported cases of HIV/Aids (figures 2007), although the regional office of the World Health Organisation estimates the real figure to be tenfold.

Yemeni women have for decades been the most fertile of the world, producing more then eight children on average. This figure has dropped to just over six, due to continuing efforts by a broad coalition of political, religious and tribal leaders to emphasize the advantages of the nuclear family. The use of contraceptives has risen from 10% to 25% in the last decade. Maternal death has dropped from 1.4% to 0.3%, as skilled health staff is now present at one in four births, which is nearly double the figure of 1990, thanks to the tuition of thousands of midwives. Child mortality (under five years) has dropped from 142 (per 1000) in 1990 to 111 in 2004, of whom 85 were infants.

Banner: A small pack of condoms costs six riyals ($0,25), as stated on a large plaquette at the entrance of the Dhamar health clinic. Most popular, says director Nabila Al Fakih, is the iud, or intra uterine device ($2,50), followed by the birth control pill. The use of contraceptives is increasing, encouraged by religious leaders and as a result of a hard battled change in family law. Husbands are no longer required to give legal consent.

Due to malnutrition, close to half of all Yemeni children is underweight and a third ‘severely stunted’, or too short for their age. The widespread and increasing use of qat does not contribute to good health, as it stills the hunger feeling, wherefore people refrain from eating and sleeping properly. Furthermore, increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides in qat cultivation has led to numerous health problems. Life expectancy for Yemeni women and men is 59 and 62 respectively, of which 48 and 51 are spent in good health, leaving eleven years of poor health for both.

Box: Studies show that the incidence of heart attacks among qat chewers is 49% higher than among non-chewers. Regular users suffer from bad gum disease, a tendency to lose teeth, and a higher incidence of esophageal and gastric cancers. The plant has also been related to a reduction in sperm quality and impotency. Death from qat chewing is usually as a result of the use of highly toxic chemical substances in cultivation. It is mostly in connection with the Topaz chemical product, which is used by farmers to prompt the growth of qat plants. Yemeni markets are crammed with tens of internationally prohibited as well as expired chemical products mostly used by qat farmers. (Yemen Times, December 2005)

Crime and Judiciary

For many years, Yemen was believed to be one of the most heavily armed countries in the world, as a result of the love of small firearms among its tribal population. Tribals with a kalashnikov slung over their shoulder, a pistol in the backpocket and the jambiyya dagger at their waist have illustrated many news and country reports. Small firearms remain popular in rural areas, but a recent arms ban has ended this practice in urban areas. It is now believed there are between six and nine million small firearms present in the country, previous estimates numbering fifty million. This would mean forty guns per hundred people, which is half the figure for the US.

The urban ban on arms has contributed much to the decline in crime, which has reportedly dropped by 35%. There is a slow increase of non-armed crime, but it remains a minor problem compared to other countries, with an official crime rate of 1.2, where the average is 33 (per 1000 people). Theft and robbery are virtually non-existent, cities are very safe night and day. Laws on crime and sentencing – sharia based – are rather harsh, with occasional public hangings of murderers, public flogging and the amputation of hands of thieves and robbers and public stoning of adulterers. The numbers of prisoners vary between 3000 and 14.000. As a result of the northern guerrilla and southern unrest, a growing number of (political) prisoners are purportedly being held without charges and trial.

Yemen has often made world headlines with exotic news on the kidnapping of tourists by tribals. In the period 1996-2001, there were 47 kidnappings (of foreigners), involving 114 tourists and 43 expatriates. However, Yemeni kidnappings can be distinguished from ‘ordinary’ criminal kidnappings. The prime reason for the abductions is to pressure the government (and foreign oil companies) to build roads, schools and medical facilities in neglected tribal areas. This is a continuation of old practices, when rulers held tribal sons to force tribal leaders into obedience. The kidnapped tourists and expatriates are usually treated as guests and are released unharmed. After two lethal kidnappings in 1999 (not by tribals but by al-Qaeda affiliates), the government became less ‘lenient’ towards the tradition of abductions.

Banner: ‘The state, which on previous occasions has dealt with the tribe by bargaining and granting kidnappers government posts and privileges, enhanced and encouraged this phenomenon, allowing it to establish itself firmly.’ Kidnapping researcher Abdulbari Tahir in Yemen Times.