Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Why Yemen's economy needs more women on board

With over 45% of Yemen’s population below poverty line, one of the greatest challenges the country faces at the moment is a hardcore poverty that makes millions of people struggle for survival. Such a significant problem represents a huge obstacle that hinders any effort for development in the crisis hit nation.
Yemen remains one the poorest countries in the world, ranking 151 of 177 countries on the UNDP Human Development Report. Population growth is very high (3.02% annually), is doubling every 19 years and is expected to reach 38 million by 2026. There are also large gender disparities, with significant gaps in women’s access to economic, social and political opportunities; Yemen ranks 155 out of 156 countries in the UNDP Gender Development Index. 
Recent reports indicate that Yemen is at the verge of an economic collapse making economic problems as Yemen’s biggest challenge that needs to be addressed in order for Yemen to move forward. 
Economic challenges in Yemen are known facts that no one could argue about. However, solutions taken towards addressing such challenges are far from realizing what the real problems are.
Government and donors are proposing solutions and drafting plans to help Yemen overcome the current economic challenges. Such plans address numerous challenging areas such as unemployment, health, education, infrastructure, etc. 
While these are key challenges to Yemen’s development and deserve to be given priority, however, the methodology of permanently and effectively solving such problems is far from what the current initiatives and plans are.
Yemen’s population is estimated at 25 million, 49.2% of whom are females. In most of the areas where Yemen lacks behind, gender inequality is a common characteristic of the problem. Yemen ranks at 138 in gender inequality index as of 2011. Women are particularly disadvantaged. Despite their vital contribution to the economy, women have very limited access to economic, social and political opportunities. Many are illiterate and on average they earn 30 per cent less than men. The majority are not given opportunities at all and their role is limited to being a house wife making their actual contribution to the economy minimal or non-existent. Reports indicate that only 8% of women are in actual employment opportunities. Those who are employed are usually employed in lower level employment and always face several social, cultural, and political barriers to move forward in their careers.
With ignoring the capacity and capabilities of the majority of 49.2% females of the population, we can only imagine how impractical any solutions or initiatives that target only one half of the population while neglecting the equally capable and important other half.
In my current research on the role of microfinance on poverty alleviation, I’ve come across some intriguing findings about the role of women and their significance in making a positive contribution towards steering a positive change that will steer Yemen’s economy and development forward. Microfinance has proved vital to alleviating poverty in Yemen. Poverty starts at a household level and all microfinance initiatives are aimed at creating entrepreneurs within the household that will financially support every individual within the household leading the entire household to be pulled out of hardcore poverty that nearly half of Yemen’s population suffers from. Among the recipients of microfinance loans in Yemen, women have maintained outstanding payback records that exceed those of their male counterparts. Their actual contribution to alleviating poverty within the household is significantly higher than their male counterparts. Statistics show that entrepreneur women benefiting from microfinance contribute their total income to the household expenditure which is not the case with male recipients of microfinance as they tend to retain a portion of their income for themselves that is mainly spent on  the male-dominated Qat and cigarette consumption making their proportional economic contribution to poverty alleviation less than that of women entrepreneurs. 
Statistics from the current microfinance programs being run in Yemen show higher profitability of projects run by female entrepreneurs. This represents a major contribution to the economy in two main ways: The first is that such an income is mainly channeled at alleviating poverty within the household in a more effective way as women tend to channel their total income towards poverty-alleviating expenditures within the household.  The second can be seen on a macro level as profitable projects create employment opportunities, pay taxes, and contribute to the country’s economic development. Such findings indicate that empowering more women to become entrepreneurs will significantly contribute to the economy in both, micro and macro levels which will help the country’s economy far better than seeking donations that only work as misused temporary solutions.
Likewise, women in the workforce contribute significantly to the country’s economy. In a recent study that used 300 men and women in the workforce in Yemen, women have shown a higher punctuality, work loyalty, stricter adherence to work ethics, and a remarkable overall productivity. Such attributes contribute to organizational productivity and increased profitability which, in turn, contribute to the betterment of the country’s economy as a whole. 
Yet with such positive attributes, women’s capacity is underutilized and opportunities available to them are limited to a few sectors and limited posts for them to hold, which significantly deprives the economy of making use of such capabilities. The fact that only 8% of women are in employment shows that the country’s economy is significantly underutilized when a large portion of its human capital is idle. Even with such a small percentage of women in employment, the motive for work for most of them is poverty. While this still represents a positive contribution to the economy, however, what we need to see in Yemen is not women who try to work in order to break out of poverty, but rather women who work in order to contribute. In other words, let innovation, desire to succeed, and self-actualization be the drive for women’s work, not just poverty.
The current gender inequality in Yemen is significant and is considered as one of the underlying causes behind Yemen’s economic problems. It is only normal for an economy to malfunction when nearly half of its human capital is neglected and underutilized. The most recent UN’s Common Country Assessment (CCA) has identified four underlying reasons for the poor outcome of development in Yemen, one of which was disempowerment of women.
What is troubling is that the numerous efforts and initiatives being pursued by the government and international donors do not address such a problem and focus mainly on the economic challenges without accounting for the need to tackle the exiting gender disparity as one of the main underlying causes. 
Policy makers need to restrategize in order to include women in all sectors and all levels of the economy as their capabilities and capacities are equally important and their contribution to economic development is vital. Carrying on with the same strategies that ignore the equally capable female human capital is detrimental to the country’s economy and will hinder any effort to solve the ongoing economic crisis.
The gender disparity in Yemen is of social, economical, and political dimensions and is only increasing as policy makers are caught up in planning temporary solutions that will fail at their inception. It is a very saddening fact that out of the 301 members of Yemen’s parliament, there is only one female member. It is indeed a troubling fact when a country’s law makers think in one mindset which explains why many initiatives of social reforms such as setting the minimum age for marriage have failed at their initiation.
Unless policy makers recognize the problematic gender disparity and address it in their proposed solutions through actively and fully involving women in the political, social, and economical process at all levels, 20 years from now we will be talking about the exact same problems, only in a higher magnitude. Channeling solutions at one gender while ignoring the other equally important gender will be like paddling a boat from one side and expecting it to move forward.
What Yemen needs is permanent effective solutions that will lead the country out of its existing political, economical, and social turmoil. Such solutions will fail at their inception if they don’t ensure that women are an integral part of the community’s decision-making processes in order to build community institutions that are capable of sustaining development and maintaining momentum.


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