Part one of the “Yemen Beyond the Headlines: Population, Health, Natural Resources, and Institutions” event, held at the Wilson Center on May 18.
“Ultimately, whether Yemen
is able to achieve its goals for social and economic development, will to a large extent depend on its future population growth and size,” said Gary Cook, senior health advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development, in his opening address on Yemen’s population and development challenges at the Woodrow Wilson Center. [Video Below]
Cook was joined on the opening panel of the all-day conference, “Yemen Behind the Headlines: Population, Health, Natural Resources, and Institutions,” by Dalia Al-Eryani, former project officer for Pathfinder International’s Safe Age of Marriage Project, and T.S. Sunil, professor of sociology at the University of Texas San Antonio, to discuss issues related to population, reproductive health, and child marriage. Drawing speakers and participants form the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, the conference was part of the Wilson Center’s HELPS Project, a multi-year effort to deepen understanding of links among health, environment, livelihoods, population and security.
Yemen’s Population and Development Challenges
Since 1950, the population of Yemen has increased from 4.3 million to 24 million, with an annual population growth rate above three percent, Cook said. High fertility drives Yemen’s rapid population growth, with an average total fertility rate (TFR) of 5.5 births per woman. Rates are even higher in rural areas and among women with limited or no education, he said.
Future population growth will have tremendous impacts on the country’s economy, education, health, and natural resources, said Cook, and “there is a very large gap between the high fertility assumption and the low fertility assumption.”
An additional 1.5 million new people will be added to the labor force and 29 percent less income per person will drop by 29 percent by 2035 if current fertility rates persist, said Cook. Though Yemen has a national population policy that outlines TFR targets of 3.3 in 2025 and 2.1 by 2035, the latest UN Population Division projections suggest these expectations are optimistic. Education and health demands and expenditures will increase greatly, while per capita arable land and water will decrease, exacerbating ongoing land and water scarcity in Yemen.
“We do not have enough local and external resources to address the needs of a rapidly expanding population,” said Cook. “Helping couples who want to limit and space their births will also help the nation,” he added.
Law, Culture, and Child Marriage
“Enforced by law and culture alike,” early marriage in Yemen is common, said Al-Eryani, with over 50 percent of Yemeni women married before they are 17 years old, and 14 percent before they turn 14. Opponents of child marriage argue that children are neither emotionally nor physically ready for marriage and that the practice increases health risks and lowers educational opportunities for girls.
Currently, Yemen has no minimum age for marriage law, and recent attempts to pass such a law have failed, said Al-Eryani. “The practice never really has been questioned.”
“There is a belief that child marriage is a good thing – both for the girl and for the family,” she said. Early marriages are a way to build family honor and tribal ties, and many poor families see opportunity for financial gain in the form of a dowry. “These families see no socially acceptable alternatives for the girl…and all of this is supported by the belief that Islam condones child marriage,” she said.
Through awareness sessions, health fairs, and school plays, the community-based Safe Age of Marriage Project has helped to change social norms around child marriage in two districts in Yemen.
After participating in the program, community members were significantly more likely to believe that delaying marriage gives girls more educational opportunities, empowers them to make decisions, and promotes healthy pregnancy and children, Al-Eryani said. Child marriage was banned in one of the communities, and the marriages of 53 girls and 26 boys were canceled as the result of the project. In the future, she hopes involving more religious and local leaders could further increase the program’s impact.
Youth and “The Reproductive Health Transition”
“When we talk about fertility transition, we only talk about the number of children born,” said Sunil. “A reproductive health transition takes into account not just total fertility rate, but a number of different dimensions.”
Women should have the freedom to decide if, when, and how often to reproduce, said Sunil, through access to safe, effective, affordable, and acceptable family planning methods. They also should have access to quality maternal health care throughout pregnancy and birth, he said.
“It’s a popular belief that Islamic societies with poor and limited resources are not compatible with a reproductive health transition,” said Sunil. “But the onset of a reproductive health transition is underway in Yemen.”
While the transition in Yemen is progressing more slowly than in other countries in the region, many positive trends can be seen among the country’s youth, said Sunil. Trends indicate a drop in fertility rates, especially among younger women; marriage of girls under 15 years old has declined; and contraceptive use among young women age 15 to 24 has increased significantly.
Government and international donor agencies “must capture the growing momentum among the younger cohort” and meet demands for better education, postponement of marriage, and healthcare services, said Sunil. Continued focus on adolescent reproductive health will be the key to achieving the reproductive health transition, he concluded. “From an economic and human perspective, the growing young population in Yemen is potentially a tremendous asset.”
See parts two and three of “Yemen Beyond the Headlines: Population, Health, Natural Resources, and Institutions” for more from this Wilson Center event.
Sources: Population Reference Bureau, UNICEF, U.S. Agency for International Development.
Image Credit: “Young girl with her mom – Sanaa,” courtesy of flickr user fveronsei1.