Women & Children First [Archives:1998/34/Business & Economy]

August 24 1998

“We have had enough of being seen as no more than reproductive machines, just about good enough to produce children and bring them up.” The strength of Ahlam Ahmed Almutawakle, words make people sit up and listen, and the men present at the seminar organized by the General Federation of Trade Unions know better than to venture a joke. In the unions, women are given their say and they make the most of it. But there is a long way to go.
Hidden behind her black veil, through which only her eyes are visible, Ahlam does not mince her words. “We have good laws, but the power of tradition and the family are the real obstacles to women’s emancipation,” she insists. Figures hear her out. While 58% of men are in paid work, only 15% of women are. “Women are not considered an economic force, even though the majority of them work in agriculture, they are simply not paid and to add insult to injury their contribution is not taken into account in the national GDP statistics,” notes Samra Al-Shaibani, who has just joined the new office for the promotion of women, created by the Ministry of Labour. Education, Health and Family Planning are to be the government’s priorities. A mammoth task given that 80% of women are illiterate (as compared to 35% of men), that the mortality rate in child birth is 10 in 1,000 and that the average fertility rate is 7.5.
The most difficult challenge will be to change attitudes in a country where macho traditions are firmly rooted. Such traditions are also used to justify child labour, a serious handicap to the future of the country. “In some regions of the country, nearly 75% of children do not go to school,” says Raufa Hasan, professor at the university of Yemen.
There are few statistics on the subject. The Labour Ministry speaks of 6% of the working population, while the US State Department puts the figure at 114,000 children, in 1994. But you only have to walk the streets of Sana’a to see the extent of the problem.
Along Revolution avenue which crosses the capital, hundreds of children accost potential customers, trying to sell bottles of water, packets of paper tissues, soap, etc. At the traffic lights they offer to clean drivers’ windscreens, or for a few riyals to wash their car if they can park nearby. Close to the factories there are even more children who have come in from the countryside with cart loads of oranges. In the old town, the market is teeming with small boys selling few things here and antiques there. The contrast is striking when just one hundred meters away, the women walk in uniform, hand in hand as they leave the main school in the town center to where their parents are waiting for them.
“When we repeat to our girls, generation after generation that their first duty is to become good wives and to our sons they must support their parents who have no social protection, we’re threatening the very future of our country,” warns Raufa Hasan. The Yemenite trade unions have placed the promotion of women and the battle against child labour at the top of their priorities. “It is not only a question of democracy and justice,” a trade unionist told us, “it is a question of survival.”
By Luc Demart
[This article appeared in the April, 1998 issue of the ‘Trade Union World’ published by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions(ICFTU), Brussels.]