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Yemen: helping female detainees and refugees

06-03-2006 Feature

The ICRC, in partnership with the Yemeni Red Crescent, is providing vocational training for female detainees giving them an opportunity to reintegrate into society after completion of their sentences. The organization also helps female refugees stay in touch with loved ones.


© ICRC / Jon Bjorgvinsson / ye-e-00075  
Skills learned in prison give some of the detainees at least the opportunity to start afresh. 

In Yemen, female detainees are frequently banished from society and rejected by their families; few receive visitors and they live behind bars with their children. Khalil is four months old and has spent his whole life in prison since his Somali mother, Aisha, was condemned five months ago.

In the central prison of Hodeida, some of the women rediscover a sense of freedom during lessons given by volunteers from the Yemeni Red Crescent. Many are learning how to sew or how to speak Arabic.

Improving the daily lives of these women and giving them the means to reintegrate into society after their release is a challenge that is supported by the ICRC.

Aisha hopes one day to make use of her new talents.

" I am benefiting from this programme because one day I want to be a seamstress. "

For Aisha and her friend Juma their sole contact with the outside world is their teacher from the Yemeni Red Crescent who they call Aunt Aish. For her, this activity is more than just a job.

" When they discover something new and show an interest; I am happy that my girls have learned something. When they leave prison, they can sew and avoid getting into bad ways. "

Strangely enough, the women can use this time spent in prison for their own benefit -- something they could never have thought about in the outside world. Juma has several children and has been sentenced to three years in jail. So, why didn't she learn how to sew before?

" Because I have five young children and I was at home bringing them up. I had nobody to help me. I was always at home; I couldn't go out to school or learn how to sew. I was at home and couldn't allow myself to do these things. "

In the prison classroom, there are courses in Arabic, mathematics, health and nutrition and Koranic studies. There is less time to be bored now and fewer disputes between the inmates.

Sixty women in Hodeida have taken advantage of the lessons since they began three years ago. Since January 2005, a weaving course has been on offer as well at the central prison of Aden or " Al Mansoura " .

Once released, it is true that any return to normal life is strewn with obstacles and some of the women are unable to bear the thought of returning to their families and communities. The skills they have learned in prison, however, give some of them at least the opportunity to start afresh.

 Red Cross message exchange  


Reeyo is a thirty-three year old Somali woman. Her husband and son are dead and the conflict and instability at home have forced her to seek refuge in Yemen.

She feels safer here but her state of health is fragile. For five years, she has survived by selling small items door to door. Her meagre income does not allow her to keep in touch with relatives scattered over several countries.

For this reason she asked the ICRC in Sanaa for help. The organization's family message system helps her communicate with her sister who is in a refugee camp in Kenya. In this way, she was able to share news of their father, missing for many years.

" I use the ICRC's family message system because I can't afford to pay for telephone calls – I'd love to call but you can't imagine how much it costs per minute. I haven't got the money. "

" The family members are dispersed and live in different parts of the world, " says the ICRC's Mohammed Al Hersi, " They have to be able to communicate with each other to know how things are and to be able to help. Most Somali refugees in Yemen depend on support from family members living abroad. "

Like most other Somali refugees, Reeyo hopes for better days when she can live in another country. Meanwhile, the ICRC handles five to six hundred family messages a year, helping refugees and their families stay in touch when other forms of communication are considered a luxury.