Uneducated, impoverished, shunned by societyYemen’s ‘servants’ get a raw deal [Archives:2004/798/Front Page]

December 13 2004

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

“My husband can't find work, so I have to go out and beg,” said Fatima describing her plight while sitting in her tiny shack surrounded by nearly a dozen children. “Most of my children have to go out to earn money also. This is the best we can do.”
Fatima is a member of a large group living under harsh conditions in Yemen's social system called “Akhdam.” The term “Akhdam,” still commonly used in Yemen's society, literally means “servants” in Arabic.
Until now, the group has been shunned by mainstream society with members facing serious difficulties integrating into the rest of the population while living in shantytowns in cities and villages in different parts of the country.
“We consider them the most vulnerable communities to poverty in Yemen,” said Yasser Mubarak, CSO Coordinator for Poverty Reduction Strategy Project at Oxfam. “They are the most marginalized group in society.”
Figures on the marginalized group are scarce, but according to a study conducted by the United Nations Children's Fund in the late 1990s, there were around 200,000 in Yemen.
In the shantytown near Bab Al-Yemen, one of the largest communities in Sana'a, it is common that over a dozen family members live in one-room dwellings. Some are made of cinderblocks, but many have been thrown together with aluminum, tarps and waste material.
Although government projects have contributed electricity and better access to water, most of the communities still lack facilities for basic needs, such as proper sewage systems and access to health care.
“The needs for their communities are endless,” said Adam Taylor-Awny, Program Technical Advisor at CARE International based in Sana'a. “There is a need for primary education, health services, water sanitation, better housing, legal recognition of where they live, the right to live in their areas, and more which shows that they are in need of many, many things.”
The men are usually hired by the government to be street cleaners and garbage collectors. The average monthly salary for a sanitation worker is around $50 which is not enough to support a family. Some complain that job security is not insured.
“I work as a street cleaner, but I'm not always needed,” said Adel, a father of five living in the shantytown close to Bab Al-Yemen. “There are no guarantees from the government for us to work.”
With the need for income, many children are unable to go to school because they are out working. A World Bank study showed that 45% of the children younger than 16 were enrolled in school in 1999, and another study reported that only 43% were literate.
“I am now in elementary school,” said a 17-year old from the marginalized group in Sana'a. “I was not able to go to school for five years because I needed to go and work as a street cleaner to support my family.”
Even though there are different theories as to why the group has remained separated from the rest of society for many years, the common belief is that they descended from the remnants of the Ethiopian kingdom in Yemen, defeated in the sixth century. Its soldiers were given the lowest form of servitude: They were condemned to collect human waste before the invention of sewage systems.
The perception of the group has been degrading for centuries, as one popular Yemeni proverb says, “Clean your plate if touched by a dog, but break it if touched by a 'Khadem.'”
To make matters worse, the vulnerable minority group lives in one of the poorest countries in the Middle East while the economy is on shaky ground. Around 42% of the country's population lives below the poverty line and as many as 40% are without work.
Although the government is in the middle of implementing reform programs, the growth of Yemen's gross domestic product has slowed from 4.1% in 2001 to an estimated 2.5% this year.
One strategy currently implemented is the improvement of living conditions being developed from within. Communities in Sana'a have established their own organizations with the assistance of international aid organizations, such as CARE International and Oxfam.
“Our number one priority is to create a better life,” said Massoud Hassan, Public Relations Officer of Amr Al-Aqbi, one of eight organizations in the capital's communities.
“It is time to change our belief in ourselves and to no longer feel inferior. Many people ask why we are called “servants,” but our aim is not to change what we are called but to achieve our goals. Our aim is to improve our lives, and the strength from within is the most important part.”
The Community Empowerment Project under the guidance of CARE International focuses on skills training, adult literacy, and developing projects that can produce an income.
Three communities have been provided with water trucks, not only to improve access to water but for the organizations in the communities to run the water business and make a profit.
“This is an example of trying to find successful income generating projects,” said Taylor-Awny. “It was a model that works.”
In the western village Amr Al-Aqbi, the Social Fund for Development provided funding to build elementary and secondary schools for the community. A new health unit was also built for medical training to help local health care and assist members in the community to integrate into society with skills.
Funding from donor countries and Oxfam supported the rehabilitation of the community in the Bab Al-Saba area in Sana'a recently which transformed shanties into brick buildings fully equipped with basic utilities, including electricity and a modern sewage system.
Organizations representing the minority group are also preparing to demand better human rights.
According to Hassan, the street cleaners, who normally work eight hours, seven days a week, are not given contracts that protect their rights and do not receive benefits, such as health insurance.
By law, employees must receive a contract after working for six months. “The workers receive no job security, and these conditions are against labor laws of Yemen and international labor laws,” said Hassan. Also in the works are for people to have the right to claim the land they have lived on for decades.
“It is important that the most marginalized group is raising awareness and mobilizing in the communities,” said a representative of an NGO based in Yemen. “What is needed is for Yemeni society to also become aware of their difficult living conditions and help them integrate into society.”