Efforts to reduce rising number of female qat chewers [Archives:2007/1105/Reportage]

November 22 2007

A month-long campaign to reduce the number of women who chew qat, a popular mild narcotic, got underway in Yemen on 15 November.

Funded by Qatar Charity, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Doha, Qatar, and run by SOUL, a Yemeni NGO, the campaign seeks to educate women about the health risks – malnutrition and underweight births in particular – of chewing qat and of smoking.

Dr Arwa al-Deram, executive director of SOUL, told IRIN that the campaign is specifically targeting pregnant women and girls at secondary schools.

“Posters and brochures will be distributed in medical facilities for mothers as well as secondary school students. We are also going to stick posters on public transportation vehicles. These posters illustrate the danger of qat and smoking [of cigarettes and water pipes] on the lives of mothers and their babies,” she said.

Al-Deram added that her organisation will send mobile phone text messages about the dangers of qat and smoking and send similar e-mails to the more than 100,000 people subscribed to Yemen Net, the national telecom company.

“We have prepared radio and television programmes that can educate mothers on the danger of [chewing] qat and smoking,” she said.

About 70 volunteers are involved in the campaign, which is initially confined to Sanaa, the capital. If it succeeds, it will be rolled out to other areas of Yemen, according to al-Deram.

More women chewing qat

“The situation is worrying as we notice that more women are becoming qat chewers. Even educated women have developed the habit, whereby chewing qat and smoking are regarded as signs of modernity,” she said, adding that about 70 percent of Yemeni women are qat chewers.

Ebtesam al-Jaadi, a media officer at SOUL, said that in one of their studies they found that newborn babies of mothers who chewed qat during pregnancy were underweight. “Qat can reduce the amount of a mother's breast milk and this leads to malnutrition among children. Smoking, which is associated with chewing qat, can also change the taste of the breast milk,” she added.

According to Dr Abdul-Rahman Thabet, a professor of pesticide toxicology and environmental pollution at Sanaa University, illegal pesticides used in the cultivation of qat can have detrimental health effects. He said that the placenta, which connects the developing foetus in the womb to its mother, does not protect the foetus from a pesticide's toxic chemicals, which would be circulating in the mother's body if she were a qat chewer.

“Consequently, the foetus is exposed to pesticides during its development in the womb. The effect this has on foetal development can lead to irreversible, permanent health problems after birth. This is because the mechanisms which provide some protection against toxic chemicals in adults are not fully developed in the foetus,” he said.

Thabet added that a mother can pass on a significant portion of the accumulated pesticides in her body to her infant.