Poor Yemeni girls face job risks [Archives:2008/1155/Reportage]

May 15 2008

By: Hamed Thabet
Yemeni girls are often forced unwillingly into high-risk jobs by poverty and family problems, according to three recent surveys by the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC), a division of the UN International Labor Association, in cooperation with Yemen's Ministry of Social Affairs.

The studies, all made in 2007, focused on the specific work problems of young girls in three governorates: child prostitution in Aden, child agricultural workers in Mahwit and child street vendors and beggars in Taiz. A total of 200 girls were surveyed in the three governorates.

Child prostitution in Aden

Poverty, illiteracy and family problems are the foremost reasons for prostitution in Aden, according to the study, which reported that 33 percent of Adeni girls between the ages of 13-16 who were surveyed entered this business to earn a living, said Najeba Abdulghani, a social researcher who worked on the study.

Many of the hotels in Aden have nightclubs that employ girls for this purpose, along with brothels in the area. Seventy percent of the girls who work in prostitution are runaways from other governorates who left their homes to escape early marriages, ill-treatment from their parents or husbands, or because of poverty.

Abdullah Saleh, an inspector from the Ministry of Social Affairs' child labor sector, confirmed that a number of brothels and hotels in Aden employ young girls for prostitution, but since he is only an inspector, he is unable to arrest the offenders. “My situation is too weak to find and arrest the responsible people, and many of the inspectors take bribes and let them go,” said Saleh.

He added that many of the pimps are supported by powerful people. Saleh said that pimps have flaunted their illegalities in front of him and other inspectors by saying that they will go free regardless, since they have influential supporters.

Another reason some girls are forced into prostitution is the phenomenon of “tourism marriages” and subsequent divorce. In Taiz and Ibb as well, the high tourism season yields many visitors from wealthier Gulf countries who get married to a Yemeni girl for one, two or three weeks during their vacation so that they can legally have sexual relations. The visitors will divorce the girl at the end of the vacation, leaving them to fend for themselves. The study showed that 39 percent of these girl prostitutes in Aden are divorced. Many of the girls come from poor, illiterate or uneducated families, added Abdulghani.

Prostitution is widespread in Yemen due to poverty, said Bahriah Ali, Assistant Manager for the Development of Women in the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), a German government-owned development company.

Agricultural workers in Mahwit

The second study focused on girls working in the agriculture sector in Mahwit governorate. It showed that girls were forced into labor – as early as age six – instead of attending school and that this common practice has serious effects for the girls.

The study said that nearly 22 percent of all the girls who were surveyed left school in order to work due to poverty. Families force their daughters to work in the fields doing difficult manual labor, added Nabila Al-Zubair, a social researcher who worked on the survey.

However, the study found that though girls drop out of school to work, boys drop out of school because they repeatedly fail their courses. This study concluded that families in the region value male education over female education, and that poverty and gender inequality denies a girl her right to decent education, said Al-Zubair.

Families who depend on agricultural work like farming and livestock breeding force their daughters to work in the fields. The study noted that many girls are drafted into sprinkling pesticides in the fields or carrying heavy objects. These jobs cause physical ailments like dwarfism, regular headaches, ophthalmological problems, backaches, skin diseases and neurological problems in additional to the psychological problems they cause.

To put an end to this very serious situation, the Ministry of Health and Population, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Information have to act fast and in cooperation other authorities, said Al-Zubair. She said that these problems will lead to unhealthy, weak and sickly youth and will cause problems when these children become adult citizens.

Al-Zubair encouraged outreach and awareness programs, training religious leaders in villages, and providing medicine for those children already afflicted by illness from such work.

Taiz street vendors and beggars

The third study focused on Taiz “street girls.” This includes street beggars, as well as those who work as street vendors, factory workers, shop workers and restaurant workers, said Noria Shuja, a social researcher who worked on the study.

“Sixty percent of the girls [surveyed] who work in the streets are orphans or have lost at least one of their parents and have no other means to earn a living except those mentioned above,” said Shuja. Girls are employed because will work at low wages and 80 percent of the girls who work in the streets do not use their money for themselves, said Al-Zubair. “They just give it directly to their families.”

Safia Al-Saedi, the head of the Child Labor Rehabilitation Center, mentioned that though there is a center in Sana'a for rehabilitating child laborers, there is no special center to care for and shelter children who were sexually abused – a common phenomenon with street girls – in all of Yemen.

Roots of the problem and possible remedies

According to Parliament member Abdulbari Dughaish, who also works on Parliament's Public Health and Population Committee, said that Yemen is unable to eradicate poverty, and hence unable to stop child labor. “These girls did not go out to the street for no reason,” said Dughaish. “They do it because of poverty and we have to solve and erase the problem from its source.”

“We can start by initiating projects in villages to provide jobs to help [parents] earn a livelihood, which will in turn help children to stop working in risky jobs and to attend school,” said Mansour Al-Aqel, a deputy in the Ministry of Agriculture.

“This is the first time that we have called the decision makers and put forward some solutions and recommendations in order to work together,” said Jamila Raja, Head of the IPEC. “Poverty and family problems are the main reasons, and we cannot solve the problem in one day; it needs lots of time and work.”

Raja added that donor aid will dry up at the end of May. The financing for the surveys came from the United States over three years and totaled half a million US dollars, said Raja.

Some of the recommendations that can be carried out in order to help the girls included encouraging them to return to school by canceling school fees. Though schooling in Yemen is ostensibly free, students pay around YR 350 for school services. “We need finance and technical support and Yemen cannot do it alone,” said Raja.

“If we all cooperate and put our efforts together, we will ultimately erase child labor, gain freedom for young girls and educate strong, healthy and happy future citizens,” said Al-Zubair.