Yemen's women turn war struggles into work opportunities

'The mother and the breadwinner': Yemen's women turn war struggles into work opportunities
5 min read
Feature: As Yemen's war rages on, many women are now seeking their own ways to eke out a living for their families to survive through the tough economic circumstances.
Women strive to eke out a living in a country where work is scarce [Getty]
Eza Ali works tirelessly to feed her five children in Yemen's Taiz. The mother knows if she cannot manage to provide for her children, they will starve in a country torn by war for over three years where millions are food insecure.

Eza, 40, is a fruit seller in Taiz, one of the most densely populated cities in Yemen. In late 2015, her husband was killed in a shelling in the city. That, she says, was the tipping point in her life.

Eza still vividly remembers the beginning of the wartime. "When the war broke out, hell rose from nowhere," she recalls. 

Today, the consequences of the war have inflicted damages on the livelihoods of millions of civilians including Eza, the mother of five. 

"I used to be dependent on my husband, and now my children are dependent on me. I am their mother and breadwinner. This war has badly changed our lives," Eza tells The New Arab.

Today, she owns a stall, selling strawberry and other fruits in the city.

Since 2015, the conflict in Yemen has triggered an appalling humanitarian crisis. The economy has crumbled, and millions have lost their sources of income in the private and public sectors.

Before the war, I would never have accepted running this stall to sell fruits. Now, I am coming to this place every day. Hard work does not make me sad, but seeing my children hungry does

Multitudes of women and men have been striving to eke out a living in a country where work opportunities are scarce. In multiple areas of Yemen, state employees have not received their salaries since late 2016.

Eza said she did not imagine that one day she herself would be responsible for the living expenses of her and her children.

"Before the war, I would never have accepted running this stall to sell fruits. Now, I am coming to this place every day. Hard work does not make me sad, but seeing my children hungry does," Eza said.

'Profit is my motive'

Eza is not alone in her struggle. Fatima Hasn, in her fifties, has a similar situation and is selling qat, a narcotic leaf chewed by many Yemenis every day.

For Fatima, it was not interest that sparked the need to begin this business, but rather the circumstances that compelled her to work and make ends meet. She spent about a year selling vegetables, but soon realised she would need to sell another profitable item, so she began selling qat.

"Profit is my motive since I want to improve my income and fulfil at least the basic needs of my family," says Fatima.

"My husband is suffering from psychological problems. He is no longer fit for any job. This situation dictated that I should be responsible for bringing the food on the table. Even if I receive aid from any charity, it does not come every day and does not last for long," Fatima, the mother of three, tells The New Arab.

Taiz has been one of the most affected cities since 2015. Ground fighting between the Houthis and pro-government forces coupled with the Saudi-led airstrikes have devastated the city, leaving a heavy toll on the civilians and infrastructure. In 2015, Taiz was declared as a disaster area.

Even if I receive aid from any charity, this aid will not come every day and will not last for long

Challenging the stereotypes

When it comes to work, women are not welcome in every sector in Yemen.

Nabil Al-Sharabi, a Yemeni journalist focusing on economic affairs, said the war has led families to break the stereotypes about the work of women.

"When a family loses its source of income and when the male breadwinner cannot provide, women have no choice but to work and earn," said Al-Sharabi.

According to Al-Sharabi, the war has deprived lots of men of their jobs, pushing women to seek work.

"Women are no longer confined to their houses. They have joined the struggle, doing business activities which generate income."

He added, "Women have been affected by the war, and many of them have been able to provide for themselves and families. They have broken the stereotype that the woman is a burden. They have proved that they can overcome hardships."

Read also: Behind the lens as a woman: Yemen's female photographers strive to overcome barriers

In a report released late last year by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, Yemen ranked last in the Global Gender Gap. The report highlighted gaps in education, health, economic opportunity and political empowerment.

Women are no longer confined to their houses. They have joined the struggle, doing business activities which generate income
Dalia al-Moqadam, 24, an engineering mechanics graduate [AFP]

Dalia al-Moqadam, 24, an engineering mechanics graduate, has been the first female to study and work in this field.

Graduating from college last year in Sanaa, she has joined the labour market, breaking the social barriers and making her dream come true.

In a previous interview with AFP, she said, "The difficulties that I faced in the beginning were first of all the field itself – it’s cumbersome. Then there was a fear of how society would view a woman working in this field [mechanics] – would they accept it?"

The war in Yemen, now entering its fourth year, has killed over 10,000 people, displaced about three million and created varied catastrophes.

The war has hurt women in particular, but it cannot subdue them. Their struggle is perpetual. 


Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sanaa-based Yemeni Media Center and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter for the Yemen Times newspaper. Follow him on Twitter: @Khalidkarimi205

Weam Abdulmalik is a Taiz-based Yemeni reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @weamabdulmalik