Slavery is still being practiced in parts of Yemen, with men, women and children all falling victim to the practice. And according to local human rights activists, the government would prefer to simply sweep the problem under the carpet.
An investigation by the Wethaq Foundation, based on six months of field studies, has revealed 190 cases of slavery in three provinces in the north west of the country. The organisation also found evidence of people being bought and sold, and its report is raising questions about just how widespread slavery is in Yemen.
Yemeni Human Rights Watch had already documented its first case of enslavement in 2008, when activists found evidence of a slave being traded for around 2.000 euros. The case was discovered via local documents used to register real estate which included the phrase: “the slave Qenaf, son of slave Sara, was legally purchased”.
According to activist Najeeb Al-Saadi, it is not uncommon for individuals from the Arab Gulf to buy slaves in Yemen and then set them free. This, he says, is seen as a charitable act, in accordance with the teachings of Islam.
Al-Saadi also claims his group was able to free a slave called Naseem during its research. The terms of release included keeping the identity of the seller confidential and keeping the slave away from the media. Naseem has now been brought to the capital Sana'a, and the Foundation is searching for someone to adopt him.
Mohammed Naji Allaw is an activist and former member of parliament. He says most slaves were set free back in the 1960s after the September 26 Revolution. They remained hugely disadvantaged though because of their low economic status.
The new findings by the Wethaq Foundation are backed up by research conducted by the Al-Masdar website in 2010. This confirmed that local communities in the North-West are comfortable with slavery. For those enslaved the situation is grim. In interviews conducted by the website, the slaves said they have not received any education and believed they had little chance of improving their situation.
According to Al-Saadi, the Yemeni authorities have been happy for the slavery question to remain hidden, and the publication of his organisation’s report is raising awkward questions. When Al-Masdar previously wrote about the issue, the authorities’ response was to deny slavery existed and to send troops to the North-West to intimidate those who had spoken out. Al-Saadi hopes his group’s new research will make it impossible for the issue to be swept aside again and that the government will be forced to take action.
Slavery is banned and all people are equal under Yemeni law, but experts say extreme poverty fuels the practice as poor people in rural areas are often totally dependent.