Theatre addresses Yemen’s population problem [Archives:2008/1173/Reportage]

July 17 2008

By: Alia Ishaq
Mahewb is a young man who is the only child in his family. He tells his father that he wants to get married and have a soccer team family – 12 children. Mahewb's father tells him that he's still young and has a lot of things to learn. His father says it's important to plan a family but Mahewb brushes his father's concerns off.

Until the night that Mahewb has this dream: he dreams that he has 12 children, but it doesn't turn out to be so easy. In the dream, Mahewb encounters lots of problems with home rentals, family expenses and marital problems with his wife. Mahewb wakes up from the dream feeling frightened, and realizes his father was right: he does need to plan his family.

The story of Mahewb is actually a theatrical production organized by the Yemeni Social Marketing Project for Reproductive Health Service, which is a division of the Ministry of Public Health and Population. The group has put on 36 plays like this in 13 governates throughout the month of June with the help of various civil society groups.

The plays aim to introduce the concepts of family planning and social responsibility to the Yemeni public in easy-to-understand and relatable ways. On July 1st, over 1,000 people attended the performance of the play in Al-Miqran village in Taiz governorate. The theme of the play is reproductive health and the problems that could occur in case of its absence. For many Yemenis, this play isn't a farce; it relates directly to their problems. Yemen currently has one the highest birth rates in the world, with approximately seven children per woman, though a recent United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) survey said that most Yemeni family actually want four or five children.

The Social Marketing Project for Reproductive Health Service (SMPRHS) invited a number of associations to help them apply the activities, which they have been working on since 2005. The program as a whole works in 13 governorates around the country, and has also trained midwives and family health counselors.

The same program trained 140 midwives on techniques such as inserting and removing intra-uterine devices (known as IUDs) to help families make better use of the contraceptive materials on the Yemeni market. It also trained 250 family health counselors on how to give accurate, clear and safe advice to families who want to plan for their children or space births. The program is also preparing to train 275 more midwives and 650 more family health counselors in the next few years.

In Al-Mukkallah, SMPRHS started a campaign in June about sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS. Yemen is thought to have a low number of AIDS cases, but there is no clear information on the actual number of HIV/AIDS patients in the country or how rapidly the disease is spreading. Because of the social stigma associated with it, the disease often goes unreported and untreated. The SMPRHS is working on putting a national team in place to help combat AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases through awareness, how to access contraception and which forms of contraception prevent the diseases. Access to contraception is particularly difficult in rural areas, where nearly 75 percent of Yemenis live.

In addition to the play, Dafwan Hezabr, an Islamic scholar and a former Member of Parliament, gave a speech in Taiz about the importance of reproductive health in Islam and how family planning does not contradict Islamic principals, even though some people use Islam as an excuse or reason to avoid family planning. Hezabr also added that even the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to follow methods of family planning and that the Prophet (peace be upon him) never stopped them from defining the appropriate family size. In fact, Islam is one of the most tolerant religions in terms of permitted forms of contraception in the world.

The theatrical performances and midwife/counselor trainings are all a part of a campaign called “Organizing Families for a Better Life.” Other activities in the campaign include two more plays that are still to come