The Muhamasheen (the marginalized) pejoratively known as the Akhdam (servants) constitute a distinct community in Yemen that the broader Yemeni society consigns to the lowest part of the social hierarchy. Though Yemen has officially abolished its caste system, the legacy of centuries of discrimination persists today. Below are eight facts about the living conditions of the Muhamasheen.
8 Facts About the Living Conditions of the Muhamasheen
- Over 50 percent of the Muhamasheen population suffers from unemployment. Systemic exclusion from most employment in the agrarian sector, despite the community’s concentration in rural areas, contributes heavily to this unemployment rate. Muhamasheen workers compete for nomadic seasonal labor such as thrashing grain at harvest time. These deeply-embedded exclusionary practices cement the subordinate status of the Muhamasheen.
- Entrenched custom relegates urban sanitation jobs, such as street cleaners, to the Muhamasheen. Thus many urban Muhamasheen people encounter and treat waste products that higher castes view as contaminating and taboo. Inadequate compensation and the possibility of pretextual termination with little notice often awaits Muhamasheen sanitation workers employed by the municipal authorities in the cities.
- Inadequate housing, vulnerable to destruction by natural disasters, depresses the living conditions of the Muhamasheen. Rather than the solid and sturdy adobe construction characterizing traditional Yemeni home structures, many Muhamasheen reside in homes constructed from cardboard and thatch or even from sheets extracted from empty containers. Exposure to the elements, whether intense heat and cold or inundation during the rainy season, invariably characterizes life in these dwellings. Other Muhamasheen live in small and cramped concrete structures, the living conditions therein little better than those residing in makeshift cardboard structures.
- Southeastern Yemen’s October 2008 floods were particularly devastating to the Muhamasheen. In response, UNHCR provided shelters to Muhamasheen reduced to the status of internally displaced persons. The Yemeni NGO al-Dumir implemented this initiative, encompassing the construction of 100 two-room shelters, with financial backing from the Japanese government amounting to USD $300,224. Akhdam also received household items from UNHCR in the course of this relief program due to how flooding affected it.
- Regular exposure to the elements and inadequate access to clean water subject the Muhamasheen to increased health hazards. Respiratory and ocular infections and skin diseases all pose a greater risk to the Muhamasheen than to other groups. Muhamasheen children, many coming of age in lowland drainage areas or near landfills, are more likely to die of malaria and chronic infectious kidney disease than of other illnesses. Poor sanitation contributes to a high rate of infant deaths from parasites, while malnourishment worsens both maternal and infant mortality rates. The marginalization of the Muhamasheen limits the willingness of the health care sector to treat them.
- In 2014, a UNICEF study concluded that poor literacy rates pervade the Muhamasheen community. A survey sample consisting of 9,200 Muhamasheen households, encompassing 51,406 persons, yielded a literacy rate of one in five among Muhamasheen ages 15 and older. Survey data yielded school enrollment rates of two in four for youths between ages 6 and 17.
- In 2014, UNICEF and Yemen’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor administered a survey of 9,200 Muhamasheen households, which revealed significant inequities in education, sanitation, shelter and medical care. The following year, the government of Yemen began designing initiatives for the improvement of the social and economic standing of the Muhamasheen community. These ameliorative programs include the creation of family-targeted financial inclusion programs involving both the Social Welfare Fund Office in Taiz Governorate and nonprofit organizations such as Alamal Microfinance Bank. Other initiatives encompass enforcing the right of Muhamasheen children to attend school without discrimination and providing students with uniforms and school supplies.
- Testimony that WITNESS and the Yemeni NGO Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights obtained attests to the epidemic of public abuse of Muhamasheen women by non-Muhamasheen men. Out of this research, the organizations above filmed an award-winning documentary, “Breaking the Silence,” successfully spreading awareness of these endemic attacks. Given the Muhamasheen community’s limitations of access to the full weight of the justice system, such documentaries as “Breaking the Silence” play an invaluable role in revealing the systemic abuses contributing to the living conditions of the Muhamasheen.
The marginal living conditions of the Muhamasheen, a legacy of centuries of caste discrimination, remains a serious issue in Yemen. However, NGOs such as UNICEF have increasingly paid more attention to the community’s plight and designed initiatives to improve the living conditions of the Muhamasheen. These measures, alongside the awareness-spreading efforts of such organizations as WITNESS and the Yemeni NGO Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights, show that there is hope for the future of the Muhamasheen.
– Philip Daniel Glass