Al-Thawra Newspaper – Sanaa/Yemen – When Safiya was set free after one years serving in the Yemeni capital’s central correctional facility for women, where she had been held without trial, she found no one waiting to welcome her home. The 29-year old, whose family had disowned her upon her arrest in 2009, found herself alone upon her release. With no one to turn to, she found herself marrying a stranger – a taxi driver who had agreed to provide shelter in exchange for sex.
But her new husband had secret plans. He soon put Safiya to work, sending her to meet with male clients in hotels across the city. Safiya in turn resisted, left her short-lived marriage and turned to prostitution to support herself. After a short while she found herself behind bars again.
Safiya, whose name along with others in this investigation has been changed, is one of 116 female inmates in Yemen who are victims of what experts describe as government neglect and social stigma.
Around a quarter of these inmates will return to prison for the same offence after their release, according to experts, who attribute the cycle to the absence of a law addressing the care and rehabilitation of such prisoners upon release if their friends and families have disowned them. Experts also point to the Interior and Social Affairs Ministries for falling short in their duty to support Yemen’s only organisation dedicated to providing refuge and care for these women.
One refuge is not enough
Driven by fear and in an attempt to avoid the ‘shame’ of imprisonment, Souaad managed to escape the security forces that broke into a friend’s house where, she says, she was attending a “girls’ get-together.” The house, she later learned, had been under camera surveillance after security forces received a tip that it was an undercover brothel.
The 26-year-old recounts calling her parents and begging them for help, receiving nothing but death threats in return. She then turned to an elderly man who took her in for one night. Fearing prosecution, Souaad said, the man sought his the advice of his neighbours, who urged him to turn her in.
And so, in the year 2008, Souaad ended up behind bars for eight months, next to the girls who had been arrested at the time of the initial arrest. Souaad, who claims she had no trial, says security forces were satisfied with sporadic interrogations every now and then.
At the time of Souaad’s imprisonment, Sanaa had no home or organisation for former inmates or sex workers to seek refuge. But in 2009, the non-governmental Yemeni Women’s Union opened the first shelter for women in the capital. This home for women welcomes ex-prisoners as well as victims of domestic violence and abuse.
For the safety of the women working and seeking refuge in the shelter, the name and location of the organisation will not be disclosed.
From the outside, the shelter looks like any other public school, with a courtyard bustling with children playing inside its walls. Through this courtyard runs a path leading to the shelter. As we walk into the two-story refuge home, a member of the Yemeni Women’s Union leads us into a room full of women learning how to make incense. Such a skill may come to their aid when they leave the refuge home and must fend for themselves.
While it is not mandatory for women seeking shelter to remain behind its walls, most spend on average six to nine months at the shelter, during which they enroll in a rehabilitation program where they can learn skills such as knitting, glass-blowing, coiffure, incense-making and stitching among other manual skills which may help them to survive on their own.
At the end of the rehabilitation period, women are free to leave and begin their new lives. But what that new life entails varies among the women. Some find employment within the Yemeni Women’s Union, while others have no plan at all and, even worse, nowhere to go. And as the program is voluntary, some women leave the shelter before completing the rehabilitation system.
A Catastrophic Absence
One major factor in the struggle of the shelter to reach women in need, according to the president of the Yemeni Women’s Union Ramziya Al Eryani, is the lack of government attention and support. Without substantial support, Al Eryani warns that the shelter may have to close its doors to those in need of asylum and help.
At the latest national conference, however, the Minister of Social Affairs, Dr. Ama Al Razzaq Hamad, stated that supporting the women’s shelter “is not among the Ministry’s duties.”
Al Eryani, for her part, disagrees, stressing that it is in fact the government’s duty to establish a shelter for former inmates, sex workers and victims of domestic abuse, or at least support the existing initiative. “It ought to be our duty, as social civil organisations, to supervise, train and rehabilitate as is happening in Jordan, Egypt and Morocco,” Al Eryani said.
Prison chief Major General Mohammed Al Zalab echoes the concerns of Al Eryani. “Many female prisoners leave prison only to find no one to turn to, so they turn to crime and return to prison,” he said, adding that 24 women have returned to prison during the past year.
Al Eryani states that the Yemeni Women’s Association “has not received a penny from the government” and that “the Interior Ministry and Social Affairs Ministry have both refused to offer support, even for something as basic as covering the shelter’s mortgage – an amount of 130.000 Y.R. (600 USD) a month.”
“Every time I think we will not be able to carry on paying for our expenses, I imagine the horrible situation of having to throw these women back into the streets,” Al Eryani told the journalist of this report.
She repeatedly requested the government support her project, paving the way for the establishment of more shelters for women in various districts around Yemen. The expenses for each of these shelters, Al Eryani estimates, would amount to 400.000 to 460.000 Y.R. annually (around 2.000 USD).
The Vicious Circle: Prison is a woman’s shame, shame puts her back in prison
Mona is yet another case, suffering a fate similar to that of Souaad or Safiya. She was one of many women forced to turn to sex work in a time of desperate need, only to find herself behind bars. The shocking experience of being in prison, Mona said, drove her to try to reestablish a new life. Finding no refuge upon her release, she once again found herself in the streets, and loss and desperation pushed her to prostitution once more. Only few years later she returned to the same prison – being only 25 years old.
Judge Amal Al Dabiy, who heads the Centre for the Cultural Development of Women and Opposition of Violence, has been following Mona’s situation closely. “Upon Mona’s second release from prison, we supported her and secured her a job as a family housekeeper,” Al Dabiy said.
“We also trained her to be a seamstress, as part of our rehabilitation program, which also includes emotional counselling and training in manual skills. We did all we could to help Mona, but the government’s lack of support makes our abilities very limited.”
Dr. Jalal Faqira, who is also heavily involved in issues of women’s empowerment, urges the government to “rethink its policies and offer more support to this sector.” He emphasises the importance of post-prison rehabilitation and social integration and a safe place for such rehabilitation programs to take place. “Women must be able to work as individuals in society,” Faqira said.
Another factor complicating this vicious circle is fear of returning to the family that disowned these women. Shawqiyya Al Absi, president of the women’s, children and youth rights organisation “I Am For My Country”, observes that “some women even prefer staying in prison instead of having to face their families.”
The director of the central prison of Al Hadida, Colonel Nasser Al Awlaqi, agrees: “I’ve had cases where women return to prison after having served their sentence asking to stay fearing that their families might kill them.”
Jamila, who is also in her twenties, first turned to the Yemeni Women’s Union’s refuge home upon leaving prison, but soon returned to the streets in search of the freedom she could not find.
Jamala Saleh, who manages the shelter in Sanaa, weighs in on Jamila’s situation: “It was clear to us that she was suffering from depression and hopelessness towards life. She had a somewhat vengeful attitude towards her family and society in general. After a short period of rehabilitation, she asked to leave and be re-integrate into society. Although we tried convincing her to stay, our period of rehabilitation is not mandatory.”
Saleh hopes that cases such as Jamila and Mona can serve as an example of the importance of governmental support and general awareness towards the refuge home and its rehabilitation program.
According to human rights activist and lawyer Khaled Al Ansi, Yemeni society remains hostile to accepting women. “Society still deals with women’s “crimes” in an unforgiving and violent manner, as opposed to how men’s crimes are dealt with, despite the possibility of women being imprisoned on mere suspicion or for smaller crimes,” Al Ansi said.
MP Shawqi Al Qadi, meanwhile, points out that “the prevailing social outlook in Yemen is that prison is unacceptable for women – it is only acceptable for men to serve sentences behind bars. In Yemen women are still being judged on their “shame”, which is rather unjustly.”
Amal Al Basha, a civil right activist and president of “The Sisters’ Forum”, a local organisation focusing on women’s rights, agrees. He argues that society expects female prisoners to live in isolation and shame and to avoid mingling with other women.
Care and shelter after prison: Who is responsible?
The lack of governmental involvement in the care and rehabilitation of former female inmates, in the opinion of experts interviewed for this investigation, is the main reason many of them end up in prison once more, especially with the absence of a law specifically addressing on this issue.
“What the government is offering in this case is minimal and insufficient,” explains Dr. Jalal Faqira, a women’s rights activist who strongly believes in the importance of refuge homes and rehabilitation programs.
Shawqiya Al Absi argues that the authorities’ role has thus being limited to their referral of an ex-prisoner to the only existing shelter.
Colonel Mutahhar Al Shaaybi, director of the central prison in Sanaa, disagrees. He argues that “the care and rehabilitation of ex-prisoners is a matter belonging to social and civil organisations. Our job is to handle prisoners who are still behind bars,” he says.
Additionally, Dr. Shafiqa Saeed, chair of the National Committee for Women – the only governmental authority that addresses women’s rights and issues and their integration in politics – believes that post-prison rehabilitation is not within her expertise. Instead, she explains, it falls under the responsibility of civil society. According to Saeed, the duty of the National Committee for Women is limited to consultation, planning, policies and follow-up of these procedures.
Many of the women interviewed for this investigation had, in fact, never even heard of the Sanaa shelter for women, and many of those who had were unaware of its location or how to contact the organization. Ramziya Al Eryani explains that “anonymity and secret location protect them from potential attacks and break-ins.”
“When asked about these women, we usually say they are trainees who have come from distant districts and must spend their training periods with us,” Al Eryani said.
“Because of the danger these women may face, we work on a basic rule: the transparency of our services, but at the same time secrecy of our location,” added Jamala Saleh.
Sheikh Jabri Ibrahim Hassan, head of counselling at the Ministry of Endowments and Guidance, in turn urged the government to take responsibility by establishing rehabilitation and refuge centres for women leaving prison and providing them job opportunities, thus rekindling hope in their lives.
“A woman is a also human being,” Hassan said. “Many women are imprisoned on suspicion of crime only and, even when proven innocent, they bear the shame of having been a “criminal” and a prisoner and are shunned from society. This may create a need for revenge, which may push a woman to commit more crimes.”
“A decent livelihood is mandatory for the wellbeing of ex-prisoners and in order to keep them from deviation,” added Dr. Anissa Dawkam, Director of the Centre for Psychological Research in Taaz University, stressing that rehabilitation was the government’s responsibility.
Innocent or guilty, the shame of prison is one and the same
Colonel Abdullah Al Hakim, director general of care and rehabilitation programs in Sanaa’s prisons, recounts with sadness the story of one of his female prisoners.
“Upon leaving prison, she was met with revulsion and contempt from her family and from society,” Al Hakim said. “She found no fosterer, and therefore tried to fend for herself. She managed to stay out of prison for about six months, having planned on never returning to her “old ways”, but need and desperation drove her back to crime and, ultimately, prison once more.”
The contempt of family and society towards women does not differentiate between a convicted sex worker and an innocent woman being detained. According to El Aryani, the two are equally shameful and are shunned accordingly.
Dr. Anissa Dawkam strongly agrees. “The exclusion, isolation and harsh judgment that an ex-prisoner receives from her family and from society may create emotional and psychological instability within her,” she said.
“This may drive her to lose sight of a “straight path” in life, seeing as her “shame”” will stand whether she deviates once more or not, and may drive her to commit yes another crime.”
Even within prison walls, the law for rehabilitation is rarely executed
When it comes to rehabilitation, inmates within prisons are no better off than ex-prisoners outside, despite the fact that Yemen’s Prison Act that stresses the importance of in-prison rehabilitation.
Article 3 of the Prison Act states that “the treatment of prisoners should aim towards their reformation and rehabilitation, through all relevant means and educational processes, including training in services and in manual and social skills, as well as physical, cultural and leisure activities.”
But in reality, this law is far from the practice within correctional facilities. Prisons fail to rehabilitate their inmates, emotionally and behavioural, experts say. According to the president of the National Women’s Committee “rehabilitation programs are rare, and when they are carried out, it is only in a few prisons.”
Members of parliament interviewed for this investigation agree. “A prisoner needs an environment of care and preparation for life outside prison,” MP Shawqi Al Qadi says.
Abdullah Al Hakim, another MP, acknowledged the insufficiency of governmental support. “A survey is currently underway and has so far covered ten prisons in Yemen, looking into fields such as reformation, rehabilitation, fostering and safety,” Al Hakim said. “The results are not satisfying, and any type of care seems to be almost entirely absent.”
Official Recognition of Failure?
Officials in Sanaa’s prison system are divided as to the role, responsibilities and failures of the government regarding to women suspects, inmates and former inmates.
“Everything we can do to serve our male and female prisoners according to the law is already being done,” Colonel Mutahhar Al Shaaybi’s says. Major General Muhammad Al Zalab, for his part, disagrees. During an official interview for this report, also attended by Lamiaa Al Eryani, Undersecretary for the Ministry of Technical Education and Vocational Training for the Girls’ Educational Sector, Al Zalab stated that “the situation of prisons in the country is really very bad and disorderly.”
Ramziya Al Eryani agrees: “Many women who come to us for refuge after serving their sentences are in a terrible emotional and psychological state. That is why we provide counselling and therapy.”
The Executive Board of Yemen’s Prison Act has for its part emphasised the importance of social psychologists in the rehabilitation programs. The Act itself contains two articles on the duties of specialists in rehabilitating inmates: Article 5 of Regulation 19 includes a section on the duties of social counsellors, while and Article 6 addresses the duties of psychological counsellors.
Amid the lack of government support, the absence of legislation to protect women in shelters and judgements from families and the surrounding society, Sanaa’s former inmates remain caught in a seemingly endless cycle of prison, rejection, isolation and desperation.
Between the fear of familial revenge, shame and death threats, these women are truly caught in what seems to be a hopeless vicious circle of shame. As one prisoner says, “Sometimes it is literally prison or death.”
This report was made possible with the support of the ARIJ (Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism) network, under the supervision of Khaled Al Harouji.