Sex worker’s profession ensures survival
The political instability of the past year has further intensifieda dire economic and humanitarian crisis in Yemen, pushing more and more Yemeni and non-Yemeni women into the world’s oldest profession. With rising food, fuel and water prices and nearly half of Yemenis facing food insecurity, sex workers say the number of women in the profession is increasing.
Sex work, according to the Women’s Forum for Research and Training (WFRT), is a profession forced on poor women facing severe economic circumstances. In Yemen, sex work is punishable by stiff prison sentences of up to three years; sex work remains an underground industry in this highly conservative Muslim country. While solicitations for sex are easy to come by, precise figures and statistics about the sex industry in Yemen are not.
Sayida, a Somali refugee sex worker, has nearly two decades of experience. She opens the door in a tight, knee-length red dress and fishnet stockings. Her bone structure is striking and her complexion perfect. Although she’s in her early 30s, Sayida doesn’t look a day over 19—her youthful beauty failing to hint at the hard life she has lived. She is open and engaging but shaking and affected when discussing Somalia and a childhood spent surviving and fleeing war.
She matter-of-factly lists the costs, services and dangers involved with her job. On the high end, women earn 50,000 to 60,000 riyals per client. Brothels are owned by Yemeni women, she says, who take an additional 30,000-40,000 riyals from customers. Wealthy Gulf playboys are known to drop 100,000 riyals or more per woman. Rates decrease significantly if a woman is picked up at a restaurant or club. These women earn between 10,000 and 15,000 riyals.
Condoms are standard, Sayida says. Testing for sexually transmitted diseases is less common but not rare.
The dangers of the job can be high, she says. Sayida shares stories of beatings—some so severe the women nearly died. Because of the illicit nature of the work, sex workers have virtually no protections against abuse. It is not uncommon for men to refuse to pay. Sometimes, a woman will meet a client, only to discover his three friends have accompanied him. Her close friend was gang-raped by four men. After discovering she was pregnant, Sayida’s friend tried to induce a miscarriage by swallowing a large amount of pills, which resulted in severe bleeding. A doctor eventually performed an abortion. After three months of further bleeding, she died.
The daughter of a high-level military official, Sayida was seven years old when armed opposition groups toppled Somalia’s military government—her father died attempting to evacuate the president.
Despite fleeing Somalia at a young age, Sayida remembers her childhood and her village vividly.
“It was everything you could imagine. We grew mangos, watermelons and bananas. Every morning I would accompany my older sister to milk our cow, and we were free to play outside at our heart’s content. I still dream of those bananas; I was never patient enough to wait for them to ripen, and I remember how they would dry my mouth. I pray to taste them again.”
Unable to understand the political situation developing in her country, Sayida only knew that armed men were entering cities and villages such as hers and killing men. Her mother sent her three brothers to Kenya before her village was invaded. While peeking outside a window, she witnessed seven men being blindfolded and shot dead.
After a year in a refugee camp in Mogadishu, Sayida made the sea voyage from Somalia to Yemen with her aunt. Sayida’s mother and two sisters left for Kenya to reunite with her brothers. Sayida’s aunt agreed to take Sayida to lessen her mother’s burnden. She hasn’t seen her family since 1992.
After the journey to Yemen, Sayida lived in a refugee camp for three years before separating from her aunt and moving to Aden, alone, at age 12. After four months serving as a housemaid for a Yemeni family, Sayida left for a better paying position tending bar in a hotel. It was there that she was introduced to the profession that ensures her survival even today.
Her first client was a Greek man, about 70 years old. She cringes at the memory of him but flashes a smile when describing the her first taste of chocolate—a gift from her client. All alone with few prospects, Sayida married the man only to discover a year later that he was married with three children in Greece. She asked for a divorce.
Without a husband to help provide for her, 13-year-old Sadiya returned to work.
“I remembered the pain of hunger while living in the camps. I was determined to never be that hungry again. It’s not the work I wanted, but I had no other options really. It was hard, but I didn’t dwell on it.”
A true love
At fifteen, Sayida discovered she was pregnant.
“I was so happy; I couldn’t believe I made this baby. She was so beautiful. I was in the clouds. I couldn’t leave her alone for moment, not even to sleep. She was always in my arms.”
After moving to Sana’a and remarrying, Sayida was able to temporarily leave sex work behind. When her marriage ended, she found herself with little money and a daughter to raise. She resorted to the only work readily available to her.
Sayida is clear that she wants a better life for her daughter. She also wants a better life for herself; she hopes to take English classes soon and her dream is to land a job for a foreign company.
Sayida said she believes educating women and girls is the way to reduce poverty and to give women options other than sex work. Sayida’s education ended after being forced to flee war in Somalia.
“The girls that live in Yemen work in prostitution because there’s no work. Sure, we get money, but it comes with problems. Some [women] die, some are beaten, some get sick. We can’t just arrest prostitutes; we have to address the root causes of the problem so women don’t have to resort to this work.”
According to the U.N., nothing is more effective at reducing poverty than educating girls. It is also the policy most likely to improve nutrition, health, infant and maternal mortality and to raise economic productivity. Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, and one of the poorest countries in the world.