Yemen's untouchables

Yasmine Kamel reports on the plight of a marginalized segment of Yemeni society and their struggle for justice.

An al muhamasheen woman with her children in Taizz, Yemen (Mathieu Génon)An al muhamasheen woman with her children in Taizz, Yemen (Mathieu Génon)

IN ONE of the poorest countries in the Middle East, an untold story of racism, exploitation, struggle and victory has been taking place.

Living on the margins of Yemeni society and in the slums of its cities is a population that self-identifies as al muhamasheen (the marginalized), but is commonly known as al akhdam (the servants). Many muhamasheen are forced to beg to survive, while others work in the only jobs that society will allow them to have--garbage collectors and street sweepers employed by the government. Though Yemen's garbage collectors have engaged in a continuous struggle against social oppression and exploitation for decades, more recently, they have made extraordinary strides.

Al muhamasheen are commonly believed to be of Ethiopian descent, and though they have lived in Yemen for more than 1,000 years, speak Arabic and practice Islam, they are considered outsiders by Yemeni society. The population of al muhamasheen largely goes uncounted by government agencies, making it difficult to gauge their numbers with any certainty, but they're estimated to make up from 500,000 to 3.5 million of Yemen's population of 20 million.

Their dark skin, their employment in sanitation and their makeshift homes made of refuse and mud all mark them as distinct from other segments of Yemeni society. Al muhamasheen are often vulnerable as targets of violence, and women from the group are often victims of rape and sexual assault. Although Yemen's constitution bans discrimination based on ethnicity or tribal association, al muhamasheen regularly suffer from discriminatory treatment by law enforcement, the court system and society at large.

Due to al muhamasheen's lack of access to education and because they're condemned by Yemeni society as servants, they're forced to work in exploitive conditions collecting garbage and sweeping the streets. A 2003 report by the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Religion at Emory Law School cites this testimony by a member of the group:

I am almost 50 years old, and I've always lived in the streets, and collected filth and waste from the streets and from houses. I do not like this job, but I cannot find other employment. The government says we are "sanitation workers" and wants us to do the same thing, which to me means we can only deal with waste. This is the only job they allow us to take. The salary is not enough so I have to live all my life in a paper and plastic house.

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THOUGH AL muhamasheen didn't choose to clean the streets of Yemen, in doing so they have for decades preformed an indispensable service for Yemeni society. This fact became undeniably clear when in February 2012 Yemen's sanitation workers, predominantly members of al muhamasheen, began a strike that continued intermittently for months.

The garbage collectors' work stoppage allowed trash to pile up in Yemen's streets and for its stench to fill the air. When the accumulated waste clogged the streets and became absolutely unbearable, the residents tried--unsuccessfully--to collect it themselves. Unlike other government employees, sanitation workers in Yemen have to work 360 days a year without vacations and without a labor contract, leaving them extremely vulnerable to retaliatory termination.

In March 2012, the sanitation workers agreed to suspend their strike after talks with Yemeni Prime Minister Mohammed Salim Basindawa. "If I do not deliver on my promise to officially employ you, you can bring back all the garbage to where it is now," he declared at the time.

In April, the garbage collectors resumed their strike. Luckily, Yemen's cities produce enough waste to spare them the trouble of having to take the prime minister's suggestion literally, and within a few days the streets were again filled with garbage. The prime minister was forced to reenter talks with the sanitation workers, which eventually led to a decree granting them full-time employment, health benefits and vacation days.

In 2008, Yemen's previous government passed similar laws guaranteeing full-time employment and benefits for sanitation workers that were never implemented, but there is reason to believe that this time around the recent victories by al muhamasheen will materialize and that Basindawa's decree will be different from past laws.

For one, the latest decree was accompanied by the creation of a ministerial committee charged with the task of implementing it, and the sanitation workers have vowed to go back on strike if these promises are not fulfilled. Secondly, there are also indications of a shift in social attitudes toward al muhamasheen.

Members of the group took part in the uprising against Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime that swept through Yemen in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, and leaders of their community took part in the National Dialogue established after the regime fell. Prior to the dialogue, members of al muhamasheen formed a political advocacy group, the National Union of Al Muhamasheen, in order to ensure their genuine inclusion in the dialogue and input in decisions concerning their group and the country as a whole.

Yemeni youth activists have also come out in opposition to the entrenched discrimination against al muhamasheen, which has previously gone largely unchallenged by mainstream Yemeni society. In response to the recent murder of a child from al muhamasheen's community, youth activists have threatened to protest if the boy's case is not properly investigated.

The sanitation workers have used strikes before to fight for economic and social justice. In 2011 their struggle under Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime yielded a pay raise, which for the first time put them above the poverty line. Al muhamasheen continue to suffer from extreme poverty and widespread discrimination, but their vigorous struggle against these conditions also continues.