Yemen’s struggles with terrorism and political instability appeared on American radar screens with the bombing of the Navy destroyer USS Cole in 2000. The small country’s notoriety increased in 2008, following attacks against the U.S. Embassy, and again last Christmas, when a would-be terrorist trained in Yemen attempted to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight. Since then, Yemen has again slipped out of the headlines. But the deeply embedded problems the country faces deserve more sustained attention, as I argue in a new case study of Yemen’s demography
Youth represent three-quarters of Yemen’s population, which has the youngest age structure outside sub-Saharan Africa. Population Action International has found that countries with age structures like Yemen’s are the most likely to experience internal strife and autocratic governance. Between 1970 and 2007, 80 percent of outbreaks of civil conflict occurred in countries in which 60 percent or more of the population was younger than age 30. During that time, an average of more than 75 percent of these countries had undemocratic governments.
While students of security, stability, and foreign policy may focus on the role of male-dominated terrorist and rebel groups, demographic dynamics in Yemen and the status of women may be a better indicator of broader challenges. A country’s demographic picture is driven primarily by its fertility trends. Women in Yemen average six children each, a rate that would lead the population to double in fewer than 25 years.
Unfortunately, many women in Yemen lack access to the health care that would allow them to determine their own family size. A 2003 survey found that 51 percent of married Yemeni women would like to prevent or delay their next pregnancy but are not using contraception, the highest measured rate of unmet need for family planning in the world.
Yemen has also received the lowest rating in the world in a survey of gender equity, based on women’s professional, political, and educational achievements relative to men. Unfortunately, this inequality is not surprising, given many of the structural barriers in place in Yemeni society. Only 41 percent of women are literate, compared to 77 percent of men, and there is a strong link between girls’ education and fertility later in life. Girls can legally be married at age 15, and pregnancies that occur too soon and too frequently are in part responsible for the country’s maternal mortality ratio, which is 39 times greater than that of the United States.
The key to a country’s future–at the political, economic and the social levels–is the young people who comprise the next generation. Youth in Yemen continue to face barriers to economic opportunity and democratic political engagement. With the size of the labor force growing faster than the number of jobs each year, youth unemployment could reach 40 percent in a decade. The demographic foundation to such economic pressures can combine with political marginalization to create an environment conducive to instability.
Yet at the social level, there is perhaps more promise. Literacy rates among young people 15 to 29 exceeded 90 percent in a recent survey, and youth also display more flexible and equitable attitudes in gender issues. Nearly three-quarters of young people report unconditional approval of contraception, a major determinant in whether Yemen’s high unmet need for family planning, and thus its very young age structure, are likely to change.
Although these issues may be rarely addressed in the political dialogue, it is critical that the efforts of Yemen’s government and its partners to promote peace and stability also incorporate policies that promote the legal rights and economic opportunities for women, together with access to reproductive health services.
Three new case studies from Population Action International on Haiti, Yemen, and Uganda examine the challenges specific to countries with very young age structures and recommend policy solutions.
Elizabeth Leahy Madsen is a senior research associate at Population Action International (PAI). She is the primary author of the 2007 PAI report The Shape of Things to Come: Why Age Structure Matters to a Safer, More Equitable World.
Photo: Yemeni youth. Courtesy Flickr user kebnekaise.