Poverty, lack of education boosting HIV/AIDS - experts

Maha (not her real name), 22, has been a commercial sex worker since she was 17. She told IRIN she and her sister were forced into prostitution to provide food and medical treatment for their ailing mother.

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"My father died when we were young and so my mother had to work as a house maid. We lived as destitutes and we could not continue our education. My mother got cancer and my sister and I decided to work on the street," she said.

"Prostitution has become our source of income. We have no education or skills... Job opportunities are very scarce," she said.

When asked whether she was at risk of HIV/AIDS, Maha said she had never been tested. "We hear about AIDS and all I know about it is that it is fatal. I think Yemen is safe as it is a Muslim country. AIDS comes from Western people and we don't sleep with them," she said.

Experts say Yemenis are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS as a result of high rates of poverty and lack of education.

Abdul-Hafed al-Ward, secretary-general of the Integrated Care Association for People Living with HIV, told IRIN: "Poverty and HIV/AIDS go together and whenever the former exists so does the latter." He said most HIV/AIDS cases were among the poor.

Yemen is ranked 153 out of 177 countries on the UN Development Programme's (UNDP’s) 2007-08 Human Development Index. According to the Poverty Assessment Report 2007 prepared by the UNDP, the World Bank and the Yemeni government, the percentage of poor people among Yemen's 21 million population stood at 34.8 percent. According to the UNDP office in Yemen, 15.7 percent of the population lives on less than US$1 a day and 45.2 percent live on less than US$2 a day.

Khaled Abdul-Majid, a programme officer at the UNDP office in Sanaa, said state institutions lacked the capacity to tackle HIV/AIDS, adding: "When there are not enough jobs, young people feel they have no future. Some resort to prostitution." He also said internal and external migration had played a role in spreading the virus.

Photo: Muhammed al-Jabri/IRIN
Some 16 percent of Yemen's 21 million population lives on less than US$1 a day and 45 percent lives on less than US$2 a day, according to UNDP

Commercial sex work on the rise

Suad al-Qadasi, chair of the Women's Forum for Research and Training (WFRT), a local NGO, said prostitution and commercial sex work had begun to increase rapidly over the past three years.

"But Yemen is a conservative community which does not acknowledge this phenomenon. This is a problem in itself," she told IRIN.

The WFRT recently conducted a survey on commercial sex work but found that people were not willing to admit to its existence. “Denying it is a problem as awareness rests on acknowledging that the phenomenon exists," Suad said, warning that if the situation continued, HIV/AIDS would be rife.

According to the US Department of State's Trafficking in Persons Report 2006, Yemeni children were trafficked internally for sexual exploitation, and Yemen was also a destination country for trafficked Iraqi women.


The UNDP’s Khaled Abdul-Majid decried ignorance about HIV/AIDS, ways of preventing it and the stigma attached to those tested positive.

Misunderstanding and fear of HIV/AIDS abound: “For example, dentists often refuse to treat an HIV-positive person, making it difficult for such people to admit they have contracted the virus," he told IRIN.

According to him, ignorance is compounded by high illiteracy rates. “Local radios should allocate one hour [a day] to educate people about HIV/AIDS," he said.

The National Programme for Combating AIDS had registered 2,493 cases in Yemen up till September 2008.