“The Al-Akhdam have the lowest social status (in Yemen),” says Maha Rashed. According to Rashed, men and women from the Al-Akhdam community can be found working in the most menial of occupations, as street cleaners, for example; they earn less than others; and often live in poor housing.
They are isolated from society, Rashed says and Yemen’s legal framework does not protect them from discriminatory practices. Rashed, herself a member of the Al-Akhdam, participated in the five-week UN Human Rights Office Minorities Fellowship Programme in Geneva. The Office launched the Programme in 2005 to offer persons belonging to ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities, an overview of the United Nations human rights system with minority rights as a key component.
Estimates vary, but there is thought to be between 500,000 and a million Al-Akhdam living in Yemen. The Al-Akhdam are Arabic speaking Muslims, like the rest of the population, but do not belong to the three main tribes of Yemeni society. They are positioned at the very bottom of the social structure, consigned to lives of poverty and deprivation.
The plight of the Al-Akhdam has not escaped international attention. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in May 2011 examined the report of Yemen and in its Concluding Observations noted: “The Committee is concerned that the Al-Akhdam people continue to face social and economic marginalization and discrimination, especially concerning access to employment, conditions of work, extensive level of child labour, extremely high levels of school drop-out, lack of adequate housing, water and sanitation, as well as electricity.”
The persistent social and economic exclusion of the Al-Akhdam minority is also highlighted in reports from the UN Committees on the Rights of the Child and the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Rashed has extensive training in human rights: she has advocated for the protection of women prisoners; she has organized educational events for marginalized women that focused on their employment and legal rights in the cleaning services field in particular; and she has advocated for the participation of women in elections.
Rashed plans to share the materials and knowledge from the Fellowship Programme with her community, especially women. She says she is now ready to explore new strategies for helping the Al-Akhdam people and “their right to a decent life.”
2 October 2012