Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The lives of Yemen’s Muhamasheen, a visible minority who suffer from caste-based discrimination, have long been characterized by deep-seated poverty and exclusion.
Al-Muhamasheen (‘the marginalized ones’) is the term that was adopted by members of the community itself to escape the derogatory term of ‘Akhdam’ (‘servants’) by which they are often referred. There are controversies about the ethnic origins of the group. Some believe they are descended from African slaves or Ethiopian soldiers from as far back as the sixth century. Others nevertheless think they are of Yemeni origin.
During the 2011 uprising in Yemen, many Muhamasheen took to the streets with other citizens, calling for social change. During the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that ensued, the community was represented by just one out of a total of 565 delegates. Nevertheless, one positive result was the inclusion of a provision in the NDC outcomes stipulating ‘fair national policies and procedures to ensure marginalized persons’ access to decent housing, basic public services, free health care, and job opportunities’. However, with the subsequent breakdown of the frail national consensus and Yemen’s slide into conflict, there was no opportunity to translate these provisions into real change for the community.
The Muhamasheen have mostly lived in poor conditions in slum areas and on the outskirts of cities, and have mostly been confined to menial low-paid livelihoods, such as garbage collection and cleaning jobs. They have suffered from higher rates of unemployment and generally live in poverty, lacking access to basic services such as water, sanitation and education, as well as economic opportunities. They have low literacy levels and school enrolment rates, and Muhamasheen have been commonly disallowed from marrying non-Muhamasheen people. Reports of violence targeting them, including gender-based violence, have been rife. The fact that they fall outside Yemen’s tribal social structures means they have had little access to redress or mediation.
While laws in Yemen do not specifically discriminate against Muhamasheen, discrimination against them has permeated the entire Yemeni system, including administrative structures and local and traditional authorities. As a result, they have found themselves either denied access to many rights – including civil and political rights – or without the ability or awareness to access their rights. As a result of their social marginalization, Muhamasheen communities have suffered a history of violence, social exploitation and political manipulation.
As the civil conflict has intensified in recent years, particularly since the onset of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in March 2015, the situation of the Muhamasheen has become even more precarious. The cities most affected by conflict – such as Aden, Taiz and Hodeida – had large concentrations of Muhamasheen. Muhamasheen neighbourhoods in Taiz were hit very early by coalition airstrikes, and Muhamasheen were among the first to be internally displaced. Saada also had a concentration of Muhamasheen who were displaced to other governorates, such as Amran, when Saada was heavily bombed by the coalition in April 2015.
Their experience of displacement has nevertheless been very different from that of other Yemenis. The geography and experience of their displacement reflect inherent patterns of discrimination within Yemeni society. In the absence of access to tribal or other informal networks of patronage, with the deepening humanitarian crisis Muhamasheen have struggled to access basic services or other support mechanisms. Community members have faced discrimination and in some cases denial of access to aid distribution channelled through local sheikhs. In most cities, Muhamasheen have moved into open lands instead of public institutions and schools. While in some localities that were less affected by the war, host communities and local authorities attempted to support internally displaced people from areas such as Saada to the extent possible, Muhamasheen were largely left to their own devices, and displaced Muhamasheen have been forced to find shelter on open ground or in disused buildings. Activists and community members have also reported young girls being coerced into early marriages to support their families, as well as the forcible recruitment of boys to fight for various armed groups.
Updated November 2018.