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About the Author

Tiziana Cauli
Journalist (London, UK)

I am a London-based Italian journalist currently covering the property market in Europe, but with a strong background and interest in development issues. I graduated in a post-degree school of journalism in Milan (Italy) and hold a Ph.D. in African Studies. I worked as a journalist in South Africa, Italy, France and Spain and am fluent in Italian, English, Spanish and French.


Yemen: fighting gender inequality through women’s education

Published 10th June 2010 - 20 comments - 9261 views -

Elham was a bride who got married against her will, just like many others in places where women’s rights are not protected. Like many others, she was forced to have sex with a man who considered her as his property. Like many others she died after what we can safely call a “rape” due to the injuries she suffered.

Unlike most other brides, though, Elham was just a child, a very unlucky one whose only fault was that of being born a woman in a country where girls can be given to men as their wives at the age of 12.

This is how old this Yemeni girl was when she was taken to hospital some months ago after her first sexual intercourse with a man caused her an acute bleeding which doctors were not able to stop.

I had read about Elham in April, when this sad story was brought to public attention by human rights NGOs and the media. Back then, Yemen’s  government was trying to get approval for a draft law to set the minimum age for marriage at 17 for women. This proposal, though, raised protests among the conservative sector of the Yemeni society, including a large number of women backed by Islamic extremists.

This picture, portraying a group of Yemeni women who were brave enough to take the street only to make it clear that they wanted their daughters to be able to marry at an early age, was published by an online newspaper along with Elham’s story.




A couple of days ago another picture reminded me of this one. It was printed on an invitation to an exhibition of graphic panels on child exploitation and abuse by the Italian artist Stefania Spanò.


Although I am not sure this is what  Spanò had in mind when she drew this image, I referred it to young girls being victims of the gender inequality their own mothers are unable to challenge and I found it very effective.

Yemen is probably a perfect example of how poverty and illiteracy keep women trapped in a spiral of injustice and violence, to the point that even mothers are not able to recognize when their own daughters are being abused.

This is not surprising considering the huge gender gap the country still suffers when it comes to education.

According to data published by United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the literacy rate for women in Yemen is below 35 per cent, as opposed to 75 per cent for men.

The government may have been unable to impose a law protecting children against early marriages, but I was relieved to know the issue of gender inequality is being addressed at its basis by a World Bank sponsored plan promoting girls’ enrolment in schools.

According to an article published by the UN humanitarian news agency IRIN, based on Yemeni government sources enrolment rates for girls have increased by almost 9 per cent in rural areas where parents were given financial support as an incentive to send their daughters to school.

This was part of a 2-year plan aimed at reaching a female literacy rate of 90 per cent by the end of 2010 and 95 per cent by 2015.

While these targets may sound ambitious, this plan is probably focusing on the right issue. And its first outcomes are good enough to give hope back to those who support children and women’s rights in the country.


For those who may be interested: this and 16 other panels by Stefania Spanò are being displayed in an exhibition called UNCHILDREN, open to the public until June 30 in Rome’s Sala Santa Rita. The event is promoted by child charity Terre des Hommes.


  • Jan Marcinek on 10th June 2010:

    Oh! This is awful. How this can happen? They are children…
    I saw Desert Flower movie a few month ago. This is the autobiography of a Somalian nomad circumcised at 3, sold in marriage at 13…

  • Tiziana Cauli on 10th June 2010:

    Hi Jan,
    unfortunately I missed Desert Flower, but I’ll make sure I watch it. I saw another good movie, though, on girls’ genital mutilation in Burkina Faso. It’s called Moolade’. Its director, Ousmane Sembene, was pretty well known so the film got distributed in Europe and it even won an award at the Cannes Film Festival. It shows how women are usually the ones who support such abuses on girls without even realizing how dangerous they are for them and what a terrible life they are condemning them to. After all, they don’t know any better. Very shocking.

  • Jan Marcinek on 10th June 2010:

    Thanks for info. I will look at this movie.

  • Clare Herbert on 11th June 2010:

    Another good movie is ‘Sisters in Law’ which is based on gender based violence in Cameroon. I’m going to review it soon for my blog, so stay tuned.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 11th June 2010:

    @Jan: My pleasure smile

    @Clare: I saw that documentary! It was very inspiring. Can’t wait to read your review!

  • Ivaylo Vasilev on 11th June 2010:

    Powerful story and illustration!

  • Tiziana Cauli on 11th June 2010:

    Thanks Ivaylo. This illustrator is really good, isn’t she?

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 11th June 2010:

    I love both images Tiziana!

    You touched a very important moment here: “...poverty and illiteracy keep women trapped in a spiral of injustice and violence, to the point that even mothers are not able to recognize when their own daughters are being abused.” Many of those daughters will become mothers themselves, either by choice or not, and the vicious circle will just continue rolling over and over again. It’s crucial that women themselves recognize the situation they are put in.

    You talk about literacy rates. There’s often a tendency for parents to wish a better life for their children than they had, e.g. being proud to send a child to university, the first one in the family to do it. We often hear “I don’t want my child to live like I did” and the like. But in this case, it seems that many women are so oppressed that they genuinely believe that marriage at 12 is a perfect career path for their daughters, am I right? If so, that is really sad.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 11th June 2010:

    Thank you for your comment Giedre!
    Yeah, it is really sad. If we think about it though, many mothers in the developed world also raise their daughters as if finding a husband and starting a family was the best they could possibly hope for. Of course, they still send their daughters to school and would never allow a man to touch them when they are still little girls. But had these mothers not received an education, weren’t they able to read newspapers, watch TV, access the internet, had they been forced to get married at an age when they should have been playing with dolls, would they really understand the wrongness of such abuses on girls?

  • Aija Vanaga on 11th June 2010:

    This is one of amazingly many stories. I still do not understant why and how this is possible to give your baby (12 still is a baby) for marriage and rape ..

  • Tiziana Cauli on 11th June 2010:

    @Aija: yes, unfortunately there are many such stories and most of them are not even reported. I guess education is the key to help women help themselves.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 11th June 2010:

    Agree with you, Tiziana, education is the key. I wonder, how do these women and their men in Yemen perceive these educational programmes? Sometimes people need to be taught that they need to be taught…

  • Tiziana Cauli on 11th June 2010:

    Good point Giedre. I am sure this programme would have never worked were it not based on financial incentives to families. In other words, parents are paid to let their daughters go to school and if attendance does not meet the established criteria, then they don’t get the money. It may sound wrong in principle: you should send your kids to school because you understand that’s your duty as a parent, but the government probably knew that wouldn’t have worked, at least not immediately. I guess they did the right thing. After all, as you said in your previous post, today’s little girls are tomorrow’s mothers. We can’t afford letting them grow up without an education.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 11th June 2010:

    If it does really work like that, then it’s a good example of how development goals are being implemented according to local situation, rather than putting everyone under the same uniform jacket. Of course I agree with you that in principle paying you to bring your kids to school is wrong, but as you say maybe it really works in this case.

    Still loving your choice of images wink

  • Tiziana Cauli on 16th June 2010:

    Thanks Giedre! Here are some more illustrations by the same artist on children rights’ violations. I love them, although they are a bit strong.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 16th June 2010:

    Very good, very good… I like how she chose some specific cases (even with the weird Google translations)

  • Tiziana Cauli on 16th June 2010:

    I can’t find the story that inspired the image I used in my post though… Hey, if you need translation from Italian just let me know smile

  • Radka Lankašová on 17th June 2010:


    you opened two very important issues - early marriages and also girls and women being treated as their father´s and husband´s property.

    What is hard to imagine in our society is considered as normal in theirs….

  • Tiziana Cauli on 18th June 2010:

    Thank you for your comment Radka.
    These are two very sad realities, but I don’t think they are so hard to imagine for us. If we think of our societies some decades ago, maybe girls didn’t have to cover their head and face, but early marriages and other socially accepted gender abuses were not that uncommon.

  • Radka Lankašová on 18th June 2010:

    Tiziana, totally agree. I wrote about it in one of my blogs having seen three strong movies about this topic.

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