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Behind Bars in a Civil War: The Women of Yemen’s Prisons

During a visit to a prison in Yemen’s Ibb Governorate, Fahmia al-Fotih of the UNFPA was shocked to see the conditions in which female inmates – and their children – were living.

Written by Odharnait Ansbro Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Meals of rice at the Central Prison in Ibb Governorate, Yemen. Each woman gets one meal a day that she shares with her children. Photo Courtesy of Fahmia al-Fotih

Women make up about 3 percent of the prison population in Yemen, but, because of the way the country’s laws work, many of them were actually imprisoned for crimes perpetrated against them. Women can be jailed for prostitution, for instance, when in fact they are survivors of rape. And because women’s testimonies in court are valued less than men’s, one man’s word can be enough to send a woman to prison for a crime in which she is the victim, not the wrongdoer.

Conditions for women in Yemeni prisons were already among the worst in the world, and they have only gotten worse since the outbreak of the civil war in 2015. A recent report by the United States Institute of Peace found that inmates suffer physical and psychological damage because of overcrowding, lack of basic services and poorly trained staff.

Fahmia al-Fotih is a communications analyst at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Yemen. She collects the stories of women, whom she describes as “invisible creatures” in a male-dominated society.

Many of the women she meets are among the nearly 7,000 survivors of sexual violence who have ended up in UNFPA shelters in the capital, Sanaa, since the start of the conflict, where they receive psychosocial support, health services and livelihood skills training. On a recent trip to Ibb Governorate, al-Fotih visited women in its Central Prison and was shocked by the conditions she found.

Women & Girls: Can you describe the conditions you saw in the Central Prison?

Fahmia al-Fotih: It was really shocking to see small girls playing in the yard of the prison when I walked [in]. For a moment, I asked myself, “Is this a park?” I couldn’t believe that little children were sleeping and playing there. There are no services for them – no healthcare, no education. It’s like they are prisoners themselves and they’re serving a sentence along with their mothers.

There’s a small wing in the prison for women and their families. There were four small, cramped rooms with bunk beds for the inmates and their children and two female prison staff who guarded them. Each woman got one meal a day that she would share with her children.

The prison authorities gave them lunch the day I visited. It was just rice – nothing else. The women asked me to take a picture of the meal because it was the best meal they’d received in a long time. Because of the war, food supplies at the prison have dwindled and a typical meal is usually just traditional bread called kodam with beans.

Children live with their mothers inside the prison. (Photo Courtesy of Fahmia al-Fotih)

Women & Girls: Can you tell us about the inmates? How did they end up in prison?

Al-Fotih: I spoke to two women there. One, called Hasna’a, was the first female inmate in the prison. She had been there for 12 years with her daughter, Wafa’a. The majority of prison inmates are abandoned by their families and, usually, they won’t adopt a child whose mother is in prison. Hasna’a kept her daughter because no one wanted to look after her.

Hasna’a was convicted of killing her husband. She said it was by mistake. She was sentenced to death but the family of her husband decided to accept “blood money” instead, which was set at 5 million Yemeni rial (almost $20,000). Because she didn’t have the money, she couldn’t get out.

The other woman I spoke to was called Hosn. She had been in prison for 10 years. Her 10-year-old daughter Dana was living there with her. She was in prison for killing a man who tried to rape her while her husband was away. When he tried to enter her house, she shot him dead. She was then sentenced to death, but her husband didn’t give up on her. With the help of some human rights NGOs, her sentence was commuted to “blood money,” also set at 5 million Yemeni rial. They couldn’t afford it, so Hosn had to stay in prison.

After my visit last year, the UNFPA, and other NGOs, posted about [Hasna’a and Hosn] on social media to appeal for help. Many generous Yemeni people – both inside Yemen and abroad – sent messages saying they wanted to help get them out of prison. They donated [money] to pay off the blood money, and both women and their children were released from prison this year.

Women & Girls: What happened after they left? Were they accepted back into their communities?

Al-Fotih: I met with Hosn and her husband after she was released. They weren’t able to return to their village because relatives of the man she had killed were there, so they moved somewhere else.

This is the best-case scenario for a woman who has been in prison. It is rare to find such a supportive husband or male family member who’s willing to take her back. Most of the time in Yemen, when a woman goes to prison, her family abandons her. They say, “Even if you come out of prison, don’t come to us – you don’t belong to our family anymore.”

Hasna’a stayed in one of our shelters in Sanaa but it reminded her too much of being in prison. She couldn’t go back to her family, but with the help of local NGOs she was able to get a small house for her and her daughter in Ibb Governorate. She’s depending on charity for now, but I don’t know how long she’ll be able to stay like that.

Women & Girls: How will she survive once the donations run out?

Al-Fotih: Yemen is a male-dominated society where women have to fight for the right to be in the public sphere. It is hard for educated and empowered women, and for women who are less privileged, it’s even harder.

The stigma that is associated with women who have been to prison is a lasting, painful scar. They are not accepted by their families, nor society. In fact, it feels like these women get out from a small prison just to go into a bigger prison – an unmerciful society.

In the case of Hasna’a, her daughter, who was born and raised in the prison, will carry this stigma, too. There are many challenges, and I do not know how Hasna’a will cope with them. I hope she manages to overcome them.

Editor’s Note: Since this interview was carried out, Hasna’a has gotten married and is now a second wife. She told the UNFPA that she wanted someone who could protect her and her daughter.

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