Desperate Somalis turn to prostitution in Yemen

ADEN, Yemen Wed Feb 10, 2010 3:38pm EST

1 of 2. Somali prostitutes gather in a slum house in the southern Yemeni port city of Aden February 7, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

Related Topics

ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Somali refugee Saada hates what she does but can see no other way to feed her six children -- working as a prostitute in the southern Yemeni city of Aden.

"My life is rubbish, but what can I do? I have to work and make some money," said the woman in her 30s, sitting with other Somali women in Aden's Basateen slum district.

Like many others, Saada fled to Yemen to escape the chaos, clan warfare and famine that has plagued Somalia since warlords toppled President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 -- only to face another struggle for survival in impoverished Yemen.

She has spent 10 months in Yemen living on U.N. handouts and turned to prostitution eight weeks ago to send money to the relatives at home who are looking after her children.

Saada gets no money from her first husband, who divorced her and went to work in Saudi Arabia. Her second husband was badly wounded in fighting in the anarchic Somali capital Mogadishu.

"So now I am on my own," she said.

Yemen hosts 171,000 registered refugees, mostly Somalis, according to UNHCR figures for December, up from 140,300 a year earlier. Many more unregistered Somalis are thought to roam there, most of them hoping to move to richer Gulf countries.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR helps Somalis on arrival, but many in Basateen say they struggle to make ends meet.

Alysia, another divorced Somali woman driven into prostitution, said she had paid smugglers to take her on the perilous voyage across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. "I have to take care of my son. I have to buy him milk," she said.

The port city of Aden has a more freewheeling atmosphere than elsewhere in Yemen, a conservative Muslim society.

While alcohol is hard to come by in the capital Sanaa, a few restaurants and beach clubs serve drinks in Aden, luring some weekend tourists from austere Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia.

In Aden's Tawahi seaside district, prostitutes work in cheap hotels or clubs which have adjacent "motels."

"The main reason for prostitution is poverty, the unemployment of refugees," said Alawiya Omar at the Italian aid organization Intersource, which is working in Basateen, home to about 40,000 Somalis and Yemenis with Somali ties.

Together with UNHCR, the group helps victims of domestic and sexual violence and tries to educate refugees about the dangers of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

"Awareness of the dangers of getting infections is not high," said Halima, a Somali woman who helps provide health care for prostitutes and advises them about safer sex.

"There are courses for the women, but many don't bother to show up even if they get some money or free food on that day," she said, sitting in a makeshift house where she lives with her husband, other families and some livestock -- all crammed together with flies buzzing around.

"My life is a mess. Sometimes men don't pay me. I would do anything else but what?" asked Najma, 34, another Somali sex worker.

(Editing by Alistair Lyon and Janet Lawrence)

FILED UNDER: