I am Raja Abdullah Ahmed Al-Masabi from Yemen and I live in Sana’a. I am the chairwoman of the Arab Human Rights Foundation in Yemen, and an international expert and trainer in human and disability rights.
I started working in the field of disability thirty-five years ago, when I teamed up with four others with mobility disabilities. They were men, all are wheelchairs user, and their disabilities were the result of accidents. I was the only woman, the only one whose disability was due to polio, and I did not use a chair.
The five of us were convinced that we could only defend the rights of people with disabilities by forming an association. Our initial request to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour was rejected. But we didn’t lose hope: we held a three day protest.
I stood there from nine in the morning until nine at night. On the fourth day we blocked the Minister when he entered the building and he finally gave directions to do what was necessary. In 1988 we established the first association for people with disabilities in Yemen.
Thanks to readers who responded so generously to our fundraising call to continue this work this year: Amélie, Amy, Arthur, Ashton, D., Georgina, Jennifer, Julia, Kamil, KC, Khanam, Kim, Lara, Maria, Marie Jose, Ricardo, Sander, Vishal and especial thanks to K. Li.
Achievements through the decades
The work was very difficult. I searched for girls with disabilities in the neighbourhoods close to the association. As they began to join, we learned about their needs. In light of that, we decided to establish a craft center and provide knitting and sewing work for girls with disabilities. With some support we got sewing machines, and some volunteers to help with literacy classes.
We caught the attention of the government, and that it must have a role supporting disabled people. In 1991, the Supreme National Committee for the Disabled was formed. In 1999 it issued a law on care and rehabilitation of the disabled. In 2000 I was part of the committee that prepared its executive plan.
I started being involved in regional and international work. In New York I participated in meetings to draft the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and insisted to ministers that the government participate with a delegation.
Yemen signed the Convention on the first day of signing on 1st March, 2007. I did not stop mobilizing and advocating in order to convince members of the House of Representatives to ratify it, which they did in March 2009.
I felt great joy each time I achieved something for people with disabilities, and a desire to work more. In 2010 I was working to get the government to prepare a national report on the extent of Yemen’s implementation of the Convention. I was on a committee to do this, but then all government activities stopped because of the revolutions of the Arab Spring. That’s when the decline and setback of rights of persons with disabilities began.
Outbreak of war
Since March 2015 the violence and devastation of war has created many more disabilities. There isn’t good data available: pre-war estimate was 2 million, but international estimates of 15% of the population would give 4 to 5 million.
We know many reasons that will have disabled people, including missiles and cluster bombs dropped by coalition aircraft, anti-personnel landmines and armoured vehicles bombs. As well as direct violence there is displacement and a low standard of living, leading to malnutrition.
Among these I want to explore particularly the situation of girls and women with disabilities. The uncomfortable situation for girls and women with disabilities is linked to a low level of awareness.
There’s a lack of awareness from the family to society and organizations that should play a role. There has been no specific attention from government policy or programmes and associations of persons with disabilities have been unable to play a major role. There are some girls or women with disabilities in good situations, but it’s rare to find.
All the grief in the world
I will begin by telling the story of a girl whose life ended due to the family’s lack of awareness and the low level of the economy. We met when I was visiting the physio therapy centre for a physio therapy session.
I will call her Mrs. F, she asked me not to mention her name. She is 25 years old and has been married since she was 13 years old. She sat next to me and all the grief of the world was on her face. She told me she lost her ten-year-old daughter.
This is the story she told me:
I am from a rural area near Sana’a. I studied until the fourth grade and they prevented me from completing my education. They married me when I was fourteen, and my husband was sixteen. A year later, my daughter came. I was happy with her.
I did not have any experience in how to take care of and raise children, and that is why we did not have awareness of the necessity of the child receiving all vaccines, including the vaccine against polio. When my daughter was born, she was in good health, and in the middle of her second year, she was exposed to a high fever, as a result of which she fell into a coma for 3 weeks. When she woke up, I was shocked she could not even walk or even stand.
She was crawling with difficulty on her hands and dragging her legs. We were in a remote area and she needed intensive physical therapy sessions, but we did not have enough money to cover the costs of transportation and physio therapy, and the war broke out.
In 2015, there was severe bombing on our village, and we were forced to flee from the village to the city. In the village my husband worked in agriculture and when we were displaced, he tried to work in everything, but our situation was getting worse.
I got to know my neighbour, and through her, I got to know the Association for the Physically Disabled, and I was able to get a wheelchair for my daughter. In 2019, my daughter entered the association’s school.
My daughter spent most of the day in the wheelchair. She was in the third grade. I didn’t realize that she had bed sores, and I didn’t know how to deal with bed sores. In the bad economic situation, we could not provide appropriate health care for her.
Her father and I knocked on the doors of all agencies concerned with persons with disabilities. But none responded to us, and her conditioned worsened.
Her temperature rose, and she entered a coma from which she did not recover.
Accessibility and accessibility
This does not mean that all girls and women with disabilities are in this bad situation. Some of them have been able to manage to struggle to get their rights to education, work, health, and even marriage.
Afrah Amer’s is a happier story, thanks to her family’s awareness and Afrah’s own determination. Afrah is my friend for many years, and we worked together at the association. I know her and her family well.
Afrah contracted polio when she was four years old, and it was not easy for the parents. They worked hard to obtain a medical grant for her travel to Kuwait and get treatment there. She remained there for a year and a half. Her father had to work as a driver in the Yemeni embassy in Kuwait so that he could stay close to her.
When she left the hospital, someone advised her father that she stay in a special institute for people with disabilities in Kuwait. If she returned to Yemen, she would not find the institute that could receive her. She stayed in an institute in Kuwait and completed her basic and secondary studies.
After that, she returned to Yemen in 1990. In Kuwait the institute and housing were prepared for easy and safe movement for her, but back at home the family was not prepared. So, her father built a well-equipped room and bathroom.
It was easy for her to move between her room and the bathroom, but she was unable to use the stairs. This forced her father, or sometimes her mother and sisters, to carry her up and down the stairs to the third floor. Her father also took her to university and then to work, until he passed away. Her mother grew old and then her sisters married. It was difficult to have someone carry her up to her room. The family decided to move house. They prepared their new place with ramps for easy and safe movement for Afrah.
Afrah began her professional life in the Association for the Physically Disabled where she worked as a volunteer for more than a year. She left the association to study at university. After some short-term work and submitting her CV to many organizations in Sana’a she found a job as an administrative assistant in the Yemeni-German program (GIZ). Afrah has been working at different projects in GiZ since 1999. Different projects have been in different offices, but GiZ prepared them for safe and easy movement.
And as for her personal life, many people have proposed to marry her. But she decided not to marry. Maybe it was so she could stay longer with her mother.
Making a family
Another woman with disability I know is Suad Badri Bakir. I’ve also known her for a while, and this is her story:
I am physically disabled. I do not use a wheelchair. I am married and have 3 daughters. I contracted polio when I was six years old and needed more than one operation, which the doctors decided to do in a specialized center outside Yemen, but my family’s economic situation did not allow it, in addition to the lack of grants. My father decided to take me to receive physical therapy to help me walk until I started walking and joined school when I was nine years old.
When I entered school, my classmates were younger than me, and I felt embarrassed, and then I decided to stay at home. My wonderful father went to talk to the school principal. The principal convinced my father that there was a system that allowed me to study a year in two years. I had that, and I studied two years in a year, finishing four years of study in two years. I finished my secondary education, and before entering the university, I began to develop myself, as I began to learn handicrafts, and I began to work with people with hearing disabilities and people with motor disabilities as a relations officer.
In general, I decided to join the university and finished the first year and moved to the second year, but I stopped for several reasons, the most important of which was the difficulty of walking, as I found it difficult to go to university due to the worsening of my disability and the embarrassment of frequent falls. I was also unable to use a wheelchair due to the lack of preparation of the streets and sidewalks, and my decline increased.
The economic level of my family meant I had to search for employment. I found work as a contractor in the Ministry of Youth, and although the salary was small, I continued despite the difficulty of unequipped public transportation, in addition to the fact that my workplace was not prepared.
After 3 years, I was appointed to a regular job, and I got married 3 years later. My husband still understands my disability, as he helps me with household chores, such as cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, and raising our three daughters.
Suad’s disability is worsening and she can only sometimes go to work. She needs an electric wheelchair, but it’s too expensive. Her employer has not prepared her workplace, which consists of more than one building. On top of that her monthly salary has been stopped due to the policy of the de facto authorities. That’s forced Suad to learn sewing and hairdressing. She works from home to meet the requirements of her life and her small family.
Before the war I had been giving trainings abroad a lot. But now travel is much harder.
I had an awful experience trying to get abroad in 2019. It took 17 hours of bad roads and checkpoints from Sana’a to travel from Aden airport. And then another three flights to get to Doha. It made me so sick that I ended up in hospital and intensive care.
And then in 2022, I fell down and I hurt my muscles of my left leg. I did not get good medication and physio therapy. It made my muscles much weaker. I find it harder to walk and go upstairs. Movement is very difficult in a country without ramps or elevators, doctors inform me that I need to go specialised physio therapy centre abroad which is difficult for me.
As for the situation in Yemen, the country is still divided by two military groups. Many people have been displaced from their homes, and are in ill-equipped camps under very difficult conditions. Many were injured by the violence of war or have gotten diseases from these living conditions and a lack of healthcare.
Factories got bombed and things don’t work like before. Government services have reduced. In different workshops I heard that services or supports from the Fund for the Care and Rehabilitation of the Disabled been reduced by 60%. I also heard that 60 centres that provided educational and rehabilitation services to people with disabilities have closed.
And of course, a lot of work from associations of persons with disabilities has stopped. They can’t run their activities anymore. Many disabled people are staying at home. International organizations know that the numbers of disabled people are increasing, but did not take steps to protect their rights. They make obstacles for us to do work, and they obey the military groups rather than stand with the national NGOs.
I’m sad. The situation of women with disabilities and everybody in Yemen, is so bad, in the South and in the North. I'm sorry to say that, but this is the truth.
I need all war to stop. I need international organizations to implement the disability rights convention in their plans and projects. And I need support to go abroad for treatment that can help me to walk without pain.
With my sincere wishes,
Thanks to Tan Kuan Aw for the illustration of Sana'a.
This article was written by Raja Abdullah Ahmed Al-Masabi, and edited by Peter Torres Fremlin. It was translated from Arabic by Google Translate and Peter.
Thanks to the Afrah, Suad and Mrs F for sharing their stories, and to Youmna Ghaleb for connecting Raja with the Debrief.
Disability Debrief is able to commission unique articles like these thanks to support from the individuals and organizations and read it.