Though poverty is a ubiquitous scene in much of the Muslim world, specifically the Middle East, most of the attention if often placed on a few key locations. The dominant discussion often highlights disparities in the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Afghanistan, regions that are facing military occupations, displacement and political instability. What is often lost, than, is a look at how conditions are deteriorating in places like Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. Surrounded by oil rich nations, Yemen has not developed like its regional neighbors and most Yemenis, for a variety of factors, see emigration as the only outlet. This article from the Yemen Times, the country’s largest English language paper, explores the degree of poverty among Yemeni widows and orphans.
Poverty, illiteracy and lack of skills to earn a sustainable income, coupled with weak social and domestic relationships, all contribute to putting Yemeni widows in desperate need of help and attention.
Every day is a challenge for Jamila, a 45-year-old Yemeni widow who lives with her five children and her elderly sick parents in a very small room on Siteen Street in Sana’a.
Rarely eating three meals a day, the entire family lives in extremely poor sanitation conditions. Jamila has made one corner of the room a bathroom while the other serves as a makeshift kitchen with a small kerosene stove and a few plates.
The occasional aid (food or clothing) she receives from neighbors or local charity organizations is never enough. She forced her three children to leave school to work as shoemakers, while she works as house cleaner, using what little money they all make to buy food and pay their room rent.
Jamila is one of many Yemeni widows who find themselves struggling alone after losing their husbands and their household’s breadwinners.
Although there are no studies or figures on the number of widows in Yemen, Rashida Al-Nusari, director of the Social Affairs Ministry’s women and children unit, affirms that widows and orphans comprise the majority of Yemen’s poor and are its neediest class.
Such women are more likely to face threats to their economic security. “Even those widows who enjoy social insurance can’t get it directly because all insurance documents must be in a man’s name,” she notes.
However, poverty or financial need isn’t the only obstacle Yemeni widows must deal with; they also face misconceptions within their communities.
Samira Al-Sabahi, director of a local organization to help widows, explains, “A widow always is considered a burden and subjected to more criticism and interference from others.
“For instance, a young widow may not remarry because she must preserve the ‘dignity of her dead husband’s family.’ Moreover, those with children should never consider remarriage or they’ll lose custody of their children,” she adds.
Some Yemeni tribes also may impose a type of isolation upon widows by preventing them from leaving their house or participating in social activities.
Additionally, many conservative families prevent widows from doing any type of work to make a sustainable income and become independence. “Many widows have disclosed that they feel embarrassed about constantly asking their relatives for help, preferring instead to make their own income,” Al-Sabahi notes.
There’s also a misconception regarding widows’ right to receive a share of their husband’s property. As Al-Sabahi explains, “Many widows don’t receive their share of the inheritance because their dead husband’s family controls it and refuses to reveal the will, if it exists.”
She adds that most Yemeni widows from poor families can’t return to their parents because they know they’ll be an extra burden upon them.
Different types of working Yemeni widows
Due to the dual pressures of poverty and extreme need, many widows choose to ignore such cultural norms, face societal criticism and find work. Al-Sabahi explains, “There are three types of working widows in Yemen, the first of which are those who are educated and who can depend on themselves and obtain office work.
“The second type are independent, but have no education or skills, so they work as house cleaners or babysitters. Finally, there are those with no education and no skills, so they depend on others and become beggars.”
Al-Sabahi confirms that the majority of working widows in Yemen are the second and third types.
She continued, “We conducted a study in Mua’een area [of Sana’a governorate], where we found that 90 percent of 2,000 widows in that area are illiterate. Additionally, many women have no income generation skills, which makes it harder for them to make even a small income.”
Al-Sabahi further points out that illiteracy and poverty cause many widows to force their children to drop out of school and work.
The Birth of Hope
Despite increasing poverty and unemployment, widows often insist on providing for their families by themselves, rather than asking others for help. It was for this reason that the Milaad Al-Amal (Birth of Hope) Organization for Humanitarian Services was established.
A widow herself, Al-Sabahi manages and runs the organization. Having married directly after she completed high school, her husband died two months after their marriage. She was lucky in that her father – unlike many other Yemeni fathers – allowed her to finish studying at university – at the college of law.
She recalls, “After I finished university, I started thinking about a project to help the neediest people, so I took a project management training course. During that time, I already was working with my friend to help poor families, providing them food and collecting donations. Through this volunteer work, I discovered that widows comprise the majority of poor families, so I decided to form this organization to help them.”
Al-Sabahi says her organization’s first step is to extract widows from their isolation and renew hope within their spirits.
“The overwhelming majority of widows are in despair. We can’t do anything for them unless we instill hope in their minds and make them feel their importance as effective members of society,” she explains.
Milaad Al-Amal helps remove widows from their isolation and integrate them in order to become effective members of society by providing them alternative work opportunities to help them sustain their families financially.
The organization seeks to train, teach and qualify widows to work in handcrafts and professions suited to their abilities, their circumstances and the demands of the local market, such as sewing, making perfume and making sweets and desserts.
Al-Sabahi and her organization are attempting to reduce the unemployment rate in Yemen by creating job opportunities for widows, noting, “We’re planning to make deals with restaurants and cosmetics stores to buy and market the widows’ products.”
The group also aims to increase literacy among widows through an Illiteracy Eradication Program. Milaad Al-Amal has launched an awareness campaign primarily through symposiums and lectures for widows to instruct them about their rights and other issues.
“Acquiring skills and obtaining work, even if it’s hard, is better than asking others for money,” maintains Dawla, a 40-year-old widow and mother of nine, adding that she’s ready to learn any skill to ensure that her children will be able to complete their education and live decently.
She explains, “Two of my children left school last year because I couldn’t cover their school expenses. However, if I learn and work, then I’ll certainly let my children complete their studies because I know they can’t get decent work unless they have a good education.”
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