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How Yemen’s war weighs on women-led households

“If we go to sleep with a full stomach, I say to myself: ‘Good, we survived another day.’ ”

Women shop for food in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a, 19 May 2022. Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Women shop for food in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a, 19 May 2022.

When Anhar Rashad’s soldier husband was killed two years into Yemen’s war, she quickly realised she needed to get a job so she and her then three-year-old son could survive.


But like most women in Yemen, a country that after nearly eight years of war is one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, the now 39-year-old had never planned to work outside the home. 


With two years of business management studies but no work experience, Rashad’s 2017 job search wasn’t easy. Eventually she was hired as a tax collector in the southern city of Aden for the internationally recognised government, which alongside an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has been fighting Houthi rebels since 2015. 


The job pays 30,000 Yemeni rials (about $27) a month. Even combined with her husband’s monthly death benefit of 50,000 rials ($45), Rashad struggles to make ends meet.


Over the past few years, inflation has risen dramatically and food costs more, especially in the south of the country where Rashad lives. She has cut back to bare essentials, sometimes relying on neighbours for food and money. When she found herself choosing between buying food and paying rent, she moved back to her parents’ home.


“The last couple of years have been the worst, because of the continuous increase in the prices of food and medicine,” she said late last year. “At the end of the day, if we go to sleep with a full stomach, I say to myself: ‘Good, we survived another day.’”

“Price rises are forcing these women to reduce their meals to one a day, and many have resorted to begging.”  

As the war drags on — a six-month ceasefire expired last October — the economic collapse that has become a key element in Yemen’s crisis has touched almost everyone. But as low levels of international aid funding force cuts in programmes like food rations, analysts and experts say they are particularly concerned about a growing and often overlooked demographic that includes Rashad and her son: women-led households. 


Women account for 49% of 13.4 million people in “acute need” in Yemen. While it’s unclear just how many of the 21.6 million people the UN says need aid this year are part of homes headed by women, the number is on the rise, according to reports and aid workers. Over time, husbands and fathers have been killed or detained, and families have been forced apart for economic reasons or because of geographic splits imposed by the warring parties. An uptick in gender-based violence may also be prompting women to take their children and run.


Nezar Aboodi, spokesperson for the Aden-based Yemeni NGO Field Medical Foundation, said that while he doesn’t have hard numbers he has noticed more and more households that have women as the sole income-earner. Some women resort to dangerous coping mechanisms, he told The New Humanitarian: “Price rises are forcing these women to reduce their meals to one a day, and many have resorted to begging.”  


Families headed by women are particularly vulnerable to hardships that result from the ongoing conflict, shortages in aid funding, and economic shocks, said Abdulwasea Mohammed, policy and advocacy manager at Oxfam Yemen. “The armed conflict in Yemen has exacerbated discrimination and inequalities,” he said by email. “Women are, in general, struggling from unequal access to services and resources, and decision-making is often made by men in their communities.” 


As of 2021, the latest year for which data is available, Yemen’s “labour force participation rate” was 6% for women and 67.6% for men. Social and cultural norms tend to keep women out of the workforce. When Rashad and other women want — or are forced — to get a job, they have almost no chance of earning a decent income, Mohammed said.


Unequal poverty


Even before the war, around half of Yemenis lived in poverty. Now most people live under the poverty line and 19 million are food insecure — a situation that is projected to remain the same or get worse.


The economic situation has been increasingly dire over the past few years. In 2020, the global repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic brought economic output down to half of pre-conflict levels. Food prices shot up, thanks to the Russia-Ukraine war, while the Yemeni rial has been depreciating in the southern part of the country, which is run by the internationally recognised government. 


Women in Yemen, Oxfam’s Mohammed pointed out, often have fewer economic assets than men — whether land, homes, or belongings. They often do have skills honed at home, and some Yemeni women are drawing on them to try and earn money.


When 40-year-old Zakira Muhammad’s husband was killed in 2016, during a break-in at the bank where he worked in Aden, she was left with two kids and a high school diploma. 


She was unable to find regular employment and felt unprepared to start her own business, despite taking hairdressing classes at a local NGO. Now she makes around 12,000 rials ($10) a month practising cupping, an alternative therapy.


That income is neither stable nor enough to support her family. Although she receives 20,000 ($18) a month from her husband’s pension and occasional food from aid groups and neighbours, like millions of Yemenis she has had to cut down on food.


“Our main meal is malawah [flaky bread made on a skillet] and tea,” said Muhammad. “Sometimes we have tuna. I can’t afford red meat or chicken.”


Others are worse off, particularly the 4.3 million Yemenis who have been forced to flee their homes. Of that group, 77% are women and children, and 26%of their households are headed by women, up from 9% before the war. This jump is an “indication of increased precarity because of the loss of male breadwinners, while discriminatory societal attitudes towards women’s economic engagement and movement remain unchanged,” an April 2022 UNFPA report stated.


The power and perils of small business


Rafika Abdul Ghani, 54, initially fared better on her own than Muhammad. After her husband passed away, she opened a small pastry and cake shop in 2018.


For several years, the business supported Abdul Ghani and her three children. But then came the pandemic, followed by inflation and price rises in basics like flour and eggs. Import tax hikes on other essentials forced her to close her shop in 2021. 


"I kept hoping the currency would stabilise,” Abdul Ghani explained. “But the prices continue to rise daily. It was impossible to keep the business running.”


Hussein al-Maalasi, professor of economics at the University of Aden, said Abdul Ghani’s case is somewhat typical, as many women without degrees or work experience launch small enterprises to make money. 


Many of those businesses rely on imported raw materials. ”When the local currency deteriorates, these materials become scarce and overpriced,” said al-Maalasi, adding that small business owners are usually unable to obtain loans to tide them over when things get tough.


Abdul Ghani and her family had to leave their home for a smaller place, where she and her children live in one room. “To survive I had to borrow some money, my debts are piling up,” she said. “I sold all of my jewellery plus the store's assets and equipment. We cut down to eating chicken just once a month, and we barely eat fruits or dairy.”


Seeking income, not aid


Abdul Ghani said she hasn’t received any assistance from aid groups, and she isn’t sure what she’ll do next. She still hopes to get a loan to restart her business at some point. 


Some aid groups are focusing on women-led families, or at least the most needy ones. Oxfam targets over 1,000 women-led households in south Yemen, though needs are rising. 


Aid, at least as it is currently designed, may not be the long-term answer for women trying to support their families on their own. That’s in part because Yemeni women are often not included in community groups or known to local leaders that aid organisations look to when structuring their programmes, so “humanitarian action often fails to hear women's voices fully and therefore does not act upon them and their priorities,” Oxfam’s Mohammed said.


Al-Maalasi of the University of Aden said that short-term emergency aid, like food, won’t solve most of Yemen’s problems, including the widespread problems that hit women and their families particularly hard. The only way forward, he said, “is to provide development aid, to find a source of income for these families.”

“Humanitarian action often fails to hear women's voices fully and therefore does not act upon them and their priorities.” 

The Field Medical Foundation, Aboodi said, is trying to do just that, offering financial aid and development projects to women who are the sole earners in their households. They hold trainings and provide basic supplies to start small businesses. “If a woman is going to start a business in cooking, the foundation will provide her with the supplies that she needs, like a stove,” Aboodi said. 


For Zakira Muhammad, training wasn’t enough to move her life forward. Instead she has tried to make choices so her son can retain some sense of normalcy. As she explained, “My kids ask for things like chocolate or juice, so I cut back on things I need.” 

Edited by Annie Slemrod. 

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