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Bringing Forth the Voices of Muhammasheen

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

Executive Summary

The Muhammasheen, meaning “the marginalized,” is an ascriptive term designating a group of Yemenis who were traditionally called Al-Akhdam (literally meaning “the servants”). Membership in this ethnic minority is hereditary, associated with certain types of occupations, and in traditional Yemeni social structures its members are considered ‘weak’ and lacking origins, therefore ostensibly under tribal protection. There are strong cultural prohibitions against marriage of Muhammasheen to other social groups and its members are traditionally not allowed to bear arms or to own property. Such individuals are perceived as being of African origin and are highly stigmatized within Yemeni society in ways that are caste-like. The term Muhammasheen, as an alternative to Al-Akhdam, came into common parlance in the early part of the new millennium in development and humanitarian circles and more broadly in Yemeni society.

Estimates of the number of Muhammasheen in Yemen vary radically, most commonly stated from 500,000 to 3.5 million, with significant concentrations in slums surrounding Yemen’s major cities. This study estimates there are between 500,000 to 800,000 Muhammasheen, approximately 1.6 to 2.6 percent of Yemen’s population. There are a variety of theories about the origins of the Muhammasheen. Ultimately, discussions on origins cloud the truth that Muhammasheen are Yemenis and Yemen is their homeland.

During the conflict, Muhammasheen children have faced similar issues as other children in Yemen, as well as additional challenges that emerge from their membership of an ostracized ethnic minority with high levels of poverty and at risk from sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Muhammasheen children encounter high levels of discrimination in schools from teachers and administrators, as well as bullying and harassment from their peers. Additionally, many Muhammasheen families need the income that children earn, primarily through begging, to survive. Despite such an environment, Muhammasheen families generally care deeply about education as it is seen as essential to build a better life. The incidence of SGBV against Muhammasheen is perceived to be increasing, including among children, often with impunity for the perpetrators due to a lack of social and state protection of this group.

Young men from the Muhammasheen community have been particularly hard hit by the conflict with shrinking income-earning and educational opportunities and diminishing hopes for marriage and a better future. One of the most significant challenges young Muhammasheen men face is recruitment to fight by parties to the conflict. While families benefit in the short term from the money earned this comes with problems: lack of support for medical treatment if a young man is injured, and little or no compensation if he is not able to work again; no support for mental health issues or trauma suffered as a result of the horror of war; and if a young man is killed while fighting, his family loses his financial contribution with no support to his parents, widow or children. Further, when a man is away fighting his family is more vulnerable to abuse and violence. Muhammasheen men have expressed that they feel used by parties to the conflict who neglected them before the conflict and who they believe will abandon them when the war is over.

One of the most urgent needs of Muhammasheen identified in this research is shelter and housing. The conflict has dramatically deteriorated the situation for all residents of shantytowns, but due to their caste-like status and structural discrimination Muhammasheen residents have been disproportionately negatively impacted. Challenges include severe overcrowding and land ownership issues. The absence of basic services in slums was a major issue before the conflict and since 2015 has only increased in significance.

Poverty among Muhammasheen is intimately tied to structural discrimination and translates into a range of challenges including: educational challenges which limit income-earning potential; weak healthcare services contributing to indebtedness and poor health, impacting the ability to work; denial of humanitarian assistance despite Muhammasheen being among the most vulnerable in displacement; and abuse and trauma which have deep emotional and psychological impacts contributing to depression and constraining income earning.

The social isolation and stigmatization of Muhammasheen magnify vulnerabilities and deny them the support of their fellow Yemenis. Prior to the conflict, Muhammasheen had varying levels of integration into Yemeni society in different parts of the country. Generally, in Aden and Hudaydah, Muhammasheen were more accepted and faced less overt discrimination. However, with the conflict and humanitarian crisis, in some cases isolation has increased, although there are reports of communities of Muhammasheen and non-Muhammasheen coming together in displacement to support one another. In recent decades many Muhammasheen have become distant from tribal systems as a result of urbanization and seeking to escape strangling social stratification in rural areas through migration.

The emergence of Muhammasheen-led CSOs has contributed to the increased visibility of the community at both the national and international levels. Such organizations have sought to positively impact the situation of Muhammasheen through educational and health activities, documenting abuse and discrimination, assessing needs and advocating with local authorities on specific issues. Yemeni civil society has been deeply impacted by the conflict and ensuing humanitarian crisis, and Muhammasheen-led CSOs face similar challenges as their peer organizations, although their marginalized status means their staff face amplified risks of harassment, detention and targeted abuse.

Muhammasheen political engagement has varied during different eras and locations. With the unification of Yemen in May 1990, the possibility of democratization, political parties and electoral politics emerged, but only a few Muhammasheen candidates have entered electoral politics. Apathy or cynicism about national politics is not uncommon among Muhammasheen, who have rarely benefited from the system and have been persecuted, made invisible or manipulated by political elites. Some younger Muhammasheen joined in Yemen’s popular uprising starting in January 2011 seeking political change. However, despite this increased public profile, only one individual from the community, president of the National Union of the Marginalized Noaman al-Hudhaifi, participated in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Despite this limited representation, a number of the 1,800 NDC recommendations specifically addressed the situation of Muhammasheen. Following the NDC, the Constitutional Drafting Committee included one article in the new constitution on the situation of Muhammasheen (Article 62), pledging to promote their participation in political, economic and social life.

Women in Yemen face significant social, economic and political challenges. Muhammashat (plural feminine) are the most stigmatized group of Yemeni women, and also the most vulnerable to abuse. Their income-earning activities, commonly begging and street sweeping and vending, bring them into public spaces where there are few other Yemeni women. Additionally, their social isolation and lack of adequate housing expose them to risks and deny them the respect and protection accorded to women from other strata of society. Stereotypes about Muhammashat abound, accusing them of loose morals, lack of honor and lineage and weak religious observance; these stereotypes shape their interactions with other Yemeni men and women. Such prejudiced views have real life consequences for Muhammashat and put them at increased risk of harassment, abuse and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Perpetrators of violence against Muhammashat are rarely prosecuted.

Table 1 summarizes the findings of this study, and presents recommendations to improve the situation of Muhammasheen and address underlying inequalities and structural discrimination in Yemen. (Click here to download a full PDF version of the report.)

Table 1: Summary of Findings and Recommendations





Conflict-sensitive approaches are essential for all programming in Yemen. There is structural discrimination against Muhammasheen and resistance to support them from other local actors.

Integrate conflict-sensitive approaches in interventions targeting Muhammasheen to mitigate tensions and negative consequences. Include host communities, fellow IDPs and slum residents in activities and conduct conflict analysis for any project targeting Muhammasheen.


Gender-sensitive programming is weak in Yemen, particularly in humanitarian interventions. Protection concerns are often sidelined in urgent life-saving interventions and there is a lack of gender expertise among humanitarian personnel.

Mainstream gender analysis in all programming and implement programs focusing on the needs of vulnerable women and promoting equality. Utilize income-earning interventions to support gender-based violence survivors and those at high risk of early marriage, including young Muhammashat.


Many programs for Muhammasheen have a narrow geographic or sectoral focus, limiting impact.

Strengthen coordination among organizations targeting Muhammasheen and other vulnerable groups.


The isolation of Muhammasheen requires focused efforts to promote integration and social inclusion. There is limited information on best practices working with ostracized and stigmatized groups.

Compile lessons learned and research best practices from various interventions in Yemen as well as initiatives in other contexts to combat racism and caste-based discrimination against marginalized groups.


Civil society is key to building resilience at the community level and providing basic services. Muhammasheen-led CSOs face isolation and discrimination, as well as experiencing similar weaknesses as other local CSOs.

Invest in capacity building of local CSOs led by Muhammasheen and support them to build alliances with other Yemeni CSOs. Develop more flexible funding mechanisms to rapidly respond to evolving needs identified by Muhammasheen-led CSOs.


There is very limited documentation of human rights violations against Muhammasheen, undermining future efforts to hold parties to the conflict accountable for war crimes. There are few journalists, researchers and writers from within the Muhammasheen community.

Support the documentation of the impact of the conflict on Muhammasheen including building the capacity of human rights activists, journalists and researchers from within the community. Engage local and international organizations to mitigate retribution against the community for Muhammasheen-led activism.


Muhammasheen youth and women share similar challenges with their peers, but also struggle with unique issues and high levels of isolation and discrimination.

Conduct assessments with Muhammasheen youth and women to build solidarity and social cohesion. Use the arts to amplify voices and build skills in expressing needs, insights and aspirations.


Education is key to social mobility and economic empowerment. There is a need to better understand why boys’ enrollment and performance is lower than girls’.

Support vocational training opportunities and higher education scholarships for youth. Support schools to improve learning environments in areas with high numbers of Muhammasheen and engage parents to address bullying and corporal punishment.


The lack of government-issued national ID cards is a significant obstacle for Muhammasheen, particularly for Muhammashat, to access basic services and humanitarian aid.

Implement a campaign to provide national ID to all, with a particular focus on Muhammasheen and women, and facilitate the registration process making it more citizen-friendly and accessible to all.


While cash assistance targeting women is essential and must continue, such efforts are best combined with income-earning opportunities for Muhammasheen women, youth and men to contribute to longer term economic empowerment.

Support economic empowerment in renewable energy and sustainable interventions such as solar energy and recycling. Incentivize savings programs and creative entrepreneurial solutions for housing and shelter in slums. Promote financial inclusion of Muhammasheen youth in microfinance and entrepreneurship initiatives.


Housing and shelter, along with basic services (water, sanitation and cooking fuel) are high priorities. Land ownership issues contribute to insecurity and the destruction of Muhammasheen property by the state, local authorities and/or landowners.

Explore creative shelter and housing solutions in slums globally. Support government and local authorities to address needs, and empower Muhammasheen community leaders, including women and youth, to contribute to finding solutions.


Unaddressed social inequities and the systematic exclusion of Muhammasheen from decision-making has contributed to structural discrimination.

Foster social inclusion interventions, applying a gender lens. Institute a quota of Muhammasheen as beneficiaries and develop affirmative action for Muhammasheen and other vulnerable groups promoting a more inclusive society.


Access to and confidence in justice systems is very low among Muhammasheen. Police and prison systems perpetuate structural discrimination and abuse against juveniles, Muhammashat prisoners and their children incarcerated with them.

In more stable areas of the country, support the justice system to better deal with women and juveniles. Such efforts must be accompanied by reform of security and justice services, strengthening community-based efforts to address SGBV and the needs of children incarcerated with their mothers.