Muhamasheen activist Rahil Al-Marzouqi: “We’re not bad people. We’re surviving in spite of everything.”
Eighteen-year-old Rahil Al-Marzouki knows that she’s up against a lot. She’s set out to defend the rights of children who belong to the Muhamasheen—a marginalized, social group in Yemen distinguished by their African ancestry and commonly called the derogative name of Akhdam, or “servants.” The Muhamasheen face regular discrimination in Yemen.
Rahil is a member of the Muhamasheen but has fared slightly better than some.
She didn’t have it as bad as some children, she says. But, she has always been sensitive to the pain of others. She has committed herself to advocating for her marginalized community, especially the children.
“I can’t be selfish and think just about myself—my peers need help,” she says. “I get so depressed when I see Muhamasheen children collecting bottles in the street for their living. They are deprived of their right to study.”
Over the last few years, Al-Marzouki has advocated for children who have been killed, sexually exploited or abused. She has begun to combat what she says are abuses carried out by Yemeni police against the Muhamasheen.
She has reported violations and has brought some perpetrators to the police station. She has also worked with human rights’ NGOs to bring light to the plight of children in her community.
What pains Al-Marzouki the most she says is child brides.
“I hate when I see children forced to marry. I will do my best to fight the practice of early marriage which is rampant among Muhamasheen children,” she says.
Al-Marzouki has just finished secondary school. Already, she says, she has the rest of her career planned. She wants to be a lawyer to defend the “stolen rights of the Muhamasheen.”
During school she worked outside of the classroom. She traveled many times to Zabid, where many Muhamasheen live in dismal conditions, in slums packed closely together. Al-Marzouki organized a group to go there and distribute food.
She also helped send some Muhamasheen to hospitals, where they received medical treatment.
Rahil has also coordinated with philanthropists to send a number of Muhamasheen to school. Education, Rahil says, is very important, especially in her community, where many families are forced to send their children to work instead of school.
Currently, Rahil is responsible for education programs in the Amer and Oqbi Foundation, run by local Muhamasheen. She is also a member of executive committee of WASL Project, a program funded by UNICEF that provides a platform for young people to voice their concerns.
At the end of 2012, Rahil was the youngest Yemeni participant in the Global Youth Forum, a UN event held in Bali, Indonesia that brings together promising young leaders to advance the rights of youth.
Rahil’s resume also includes Yemen’s Children Parliament, as a representative for marginalized children.
“I seek to eliminate the stereotype about the Muhamasheen. There are ambitious and educated people from this community,” she said. “We’re not bad people. We’re surviving in spite of everything.”