Sex workers in Yemen are often forced into the profession out of dire economic circumstances, according to a recent study published by a local NGO, the Women’s’ Forum for Research and Training (WFRT).
The small scale sample study was carried out in two southern governorates where the tourist trade is relatively brisk compared to the more isolated northern areas of the mountainous country.
In total, 17 sex workers were interviewed in the city of Taiz, 256 km south of the capital, Sana; 13 in Aden, 363 km to the south of the capital; and 10 in the al-Mansourah prison, also in Aden.
Researchers said they were only able to interview a small number of Yemeni women as sex work is a taboo subject in this highly conservative society.
Pre-marital and extra-marital sex is considered socially unacceptable in the conservative Islamic country. It is also illegal, and can result in stiff prison sentences of up to three years in jail.
Colonel Hussein Yahia Hussien of the Aden security office said that police regularly raid brothels and arrest gangs running sex trade rackets.
"It’s organised prostitution,” Hussein told IRIN. “It’s growing very fast, and needs to be addressed."
Given the forbidden nature of the work, there are no official statistics on how many women are employed in the industry.
However, according to the WFRT study, almost all sex workers interviewed cited economic difficulty as the overriding factor forcing them into the illicit trade.
"Most of the sex workers interviewed are without jobs,” the study noted. “This spells out why they sell sex as a source of income to support themselves and, in some cases, their families.”
The women were generally found to live in poor areas, where social and family problems had led them to disreputable hotels or brothels, the study said.
According to the latest World Bank report, 42 percent of Yemen's 19.7 million people live on less than $2 per day. The national unemployment rate in 2003 was figured at 37 percent.
The study noted that sex workers can make as much as $100 by servicing rich visitors, often from nearby Gulf countries. Yemeni customers, meanwhile, generally pay between $30 and $40 for services rendered.
Some 70 percent of those interviewed in prison were married, and that they engaged in the banned practice with the knowledge and approval of their husbands and male relatives, the study said.
In some cases, marriages are contracted simply to disguise the fact that “wives” are working as prostitutes.
Additionally, foreign women – usually from Egypt, Morocco, Russia and Iraq – who take on jobs as “dancers” in local hotels are often unwittingly lured into prostitution, the study found.
According to Ayoub Abu Bakr, a labour office director in Aden, Yemeni women don’t need licenses and can perform any job that does not break the law.
He added, however, that licenses granted to foreign women working in hotels can be withdrawn if they have been found engaging in commercial sex work.
These women are also occasionally subjected to annual HIV tests.
The WFRT study, the first of its kind, concluded by recommending greater support for low-income families and the empowerment of women by way of education and awareness programmes.
It went on to urge greater protection for the homeless and more public awareness regarding sexually transmitted diseases.
It also recommended that sex workers in Yemen, considered a “high-risk” group, be given regular HIV/AIDS tests in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease.
While figures for HIV/AIDS in Yemen remain unknown, given the social stigma associated with the virus, UNAIDS estimates an adult prevalence rate of 0.1 percent.
The government’s National AIDS Programme surveillance report indicates that the cumulative number of HIV/AIDS cases reported in Yemen by the end of 2004 stood at some 1,600. However, in the absence of sufficient data, officials fear that a considerable number of additional cases go unreported.