The lie of a conservative society breaks downThursdays in Hodeidah: a day for begging or prostitution? [Archives:2008/1170/Reportage]

July 7 2008

Abdulhif Al-Hutami
For The Yemen Times

Fifteen-year-old Maryam stands in front of a company in Hodeidah, along with hundreds of female beggars who fill the city's streets and roundabouts every Thursday. She and her friends say they're looking for the cost of a loaf of bread to provide for their poverty-stricken families living in Al-Salkhana neighborhood.

Maryam's father is handicapped and her mother leads a life of suffering, as she too is sick. Her brother, Khalid, died on the Yemeni-Saudi border while attempting to enter that country illegally, leaving behind his portrait hung in his room as a memorial for his family.

“I feel alone since I have three little brothers awaiting my support,” Maryam laments, “All I want is enough money to provide them and myself with bread. The most important thing is to receive an essential living. For this reason, it's easy to suffer and bear the bad conditions in this country. However, some people exploit our poverty,” she added with fear in her eyes upon looking at her friend.

Maryam feels no disgrace in finding herself in the house of those who exploit her. “We get together with men every day; there's nothing fearful about be with a man. What's important is that he has a house to accommodate us,” adds her friend, who asked if I was a detective, meaning that I'll monitor what their real job. When I replied “No,” she called her other friend, saying, “Come over here, Fatima, we have a customer.”

Before I left, I tried to take a photo of the female beggars gathered in the area, but they refused, warning me that they would scream and gather all of the people in the area against me.

What attracts an observer's attention is that these girls wear nice with expensive clothing, as if their job is something besides begging. Near the city's Zayed Street, hundreds of girls rush downtown early every Thursday morning, remaining there until sunset.

Asking one of them, Saleha, what they do in that area and why they gather around, particularly on Thursday, she replied that they are there to “make a living.”

“We beg every day, not just on Thursday. We're poor and as a result, we resort to begging as our sole source of living and income. If we had jobs and our families were able to provide food, we wouldn't ask anyone for money,” Saleha says, adding that their begging isn't a shame upon them, but upon the rest of society.

Asked why girls are deliberately well-dressed, creating doubts that their job isn't only begging but rather something else, implying prostitution, Saleha responded, “We know our going out looking like this isn't good behavior, but it attracts some people, especially those drivers from Saudi Arabia.”

She adds, “Some girls also pay for immoral behavior with men from their own pockets.”

According to her, the reason for prostitution is the spread of sexual movies, CDs, immoral photos and other reasons dragging many girls to become involved in such acts.

Many female beggars come to the city from nearby rural areas, gathering in markets or in front of businesses and institutions. Some mothers bring their children with them for the purpose of begging while other mothers accompany their daughters while begging, lest their daughters be subjected to immoral acts other than begging.

According to Saleha, those girls involved in prostitution acts receive between YR 1,000 and YR 5,000, “based on whether they're good looking,” she notes, affirming that many work not as individuals, but organized into networks.

While beggars earn only YR 300 to YR 1,000, “Even those who turn to the streets just to beg are exposed to sexual harassment,” said one young man seated in the same location.

Running from the police

Last year, local security in Hodeidah arrested many for “immoral behavior,” the majority of whom were females charged with disseminating vice and being involved in prostitution.

Security sources say some 320 instances of drinking alcohol and or in conclave were prosecuted in Hodeidah last year.

Risks everywhere

While many consider sex workers “disease vectors,” particularly sexually-transmitted diseases like HIV and AIDS, there still are no statistics or studies linking those living with AIDS to girls who practice prostitution.

While Hodeidah's Health Office recorded 158 HIV cases last year, the office never reveals any information on its patients as part of its protection and guarantee of confidentiality.

However, being subjected to sexual diseases isn't the only risk facing these young girls, as Hodeidah University sociology professor Ahmed Al-Muammari points to the psychological and social impacts of forcing young girls to beg or pushing them into immoral networks.

“These girls mostly suffer lack of self-confidence, underestimation and weakness.

They also are involved in organized crime,” he says.

He adds that the reason girls beg is the poor living standards in which they live, noting that large numbers of children in a family as a result of polygamy causes fathers huge financial challenges. Consequently, the children become the victims and resort to begging on the streets.

“A man with more than one wife sometimes is controlled by one of them and the weaker wife and her children suffer due to her husband's bad treatment, so they leave home and head out to beg on the streets,” Al-Muammari notes, adding, “Other social, economic and cultural factors also contribute negatively to these problems.”

He says the media means in general, and satellite channels in particular, are among the reasons aggravating the problem of both begging and prostitution in society, noting that some girls desire to elope with their boyfriends and leave their families.

Subhaya Ahmad Rajeh, head of the Yemeni Women's Union in Hodeidah, stresses that the incumbent bodies should thoroughly discuss the issue of female beggars in order to end the problem, adding that all authorities and members of society should tackle and address beggars and their issues.

“Late in 2007, the Yemeni Women's Union held a workshop in cooperation with the city's local council and the education office. During this workshop, participants discussed the phenomena of girls and adult women begging, as well as children begging,” Rajeh says, adding, “We agreed that all concerned bodies should work together to solve these problems.”

She maintains that during the last quarter of 2007 and the three months of 2008, 22 women were released from jail after being arrested for immoral behavior. Some of those released were beggars.

Rajeh says some families refused to receive their daughters who were in prison because they brought disgrace upon them. As a result, those girls were sent to Aden where there's a center that cares for girls who are rejected by their families.

“There's a real catastrophe being committed against women in this society. For example, within the past few weeks, we've discovered a man married to a handicapped wife who has eight children,” Rajeh says.

“The husband dumps his children and their mother – who is pregnant – on the pavement, where they're provided food only by one of my friends. This poor woman's husband only visits them, leaving at night while offering them nothing. This criminal should be prosecuted for his behavior against his wife, his children and humanity as a whole,” she concludes.