According to guidelines by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), a safe space is a formal or informal place where women and girls feel physically and emotionally safe. In this context, safety refers to the absence of trauma, excessive stress, abuse, violence or fear of violence. Safe spaces provide refuge and comfort to women and girls in an environment where they can enjoy the freedom to express themselves without fear of being judged or harmed.
In 2018, a safe space for women and girls opened in Marib to offer shelter to abused women and girls and facilitate their access to physical and mental health care.
The team at Marib’s safe space includes 17 women and men who comprise an administrative staff, psychologists, sociologists, lawyers, and a field team for awareness-raising activities, according to Hafsa al-Thibani, project coordinator.
“We help abused women gain self-confidence and stand firm as they face life’s difficulties,” al-Thibani said.
The services of the safe space range from financial assistance to individual and collective counselling, health care and legal services. The shelter also focuses on eradicating illiteracy and empowering women economically through the Livelihoods Programme, the outfit’s most prominent engagement.
After a training course in tailoring, Badriya Abdullah*, 40, was given a sewing machine through the Livelihoods Programme and now works as a sewing instructor herself. She said she feels transformed by the supportive benefits of the safe space.
“Anyone familiar with what I suffered is amazed at the improvement of my emotional state and quality of life,” said the mother of three.
Tradition vs Practical Solutions
A lack of community awareness toward the goals of safe spaces has been a hindrance to the staff’s work, according to Saleh Qassem, former director of Human Access, an association that funds Marib’s safe space in collaboration with the UNFPA.
“I get requests for psychological consultation every day.”
This obstacle is examined in a report for the Arabia Felix Center for Studies, in which Abdul Karim Ghanem outlines social, historical, and legal factors that contribute to gender-based violence in Yemen. The study examines a cultural paradox: while beating or insulting any female is considered an act of utmost disgrace, men and boys maintain the right to discipline the girls and women in their families in a misguided notion of preserving the family’s “honour.”
It is likewise a disgrace to report abuse by a close relative such as a father or husband because family affairs are considered off-limits to authorities.
“There’s a conflict between the customs and traditions that favour solving a family’s problems exclusively at home,” Qassim said.
The study, titled “The Impact of War on Violence against Women and Girls in Yemen,” points out that no law in Yemen is specifically designed to protect women from gender-based violence, nor is there a legal minimum age for marriage. In addition, provisions of the penal code increase women’s exposure to violence since men are given reduced sentences for so-called honour crimes; penalties do not exceed a fine or a year in prison, even in cases of homicide.
At the beginning of her career, Fatima Mohsen, 45, a psychologist, had difficulty getting women to participate in counselling sessions because of the stigma associated with psychotherapy. But that changed over time.
“Now I get requests for psychological consultation every day,” she said.
“Between 50 and 80 women are benefitting from counselling services every month.”
Given the growing numbers of women seeking support among displaced communities, the capacity of safe spaces is limited, according to Khaled al-Shajni, 35, deputy director of the operational unit for managing displaced person camps in Marib.
But that doesn’t mean the work has been in vain. From 2018 to 2021, Marib’s safe space has provided thousands of individuals with mental health services, legal consultation, and cash assistance. Three hundred individuals have received vocational training or launched economic enterprises, and 23,000 have taken part in awareness-raising programmes.
“The spaces of Human Access have helped some abused women by providing a source of income for them and their children,” said al-Shajni.
Asmaa Ahmed*, 35, is grateful for the resources and guidance provided by the safe space staff in Marib.
“If it weren’t for their presence and support, I would have a lifetime of misery, deprivation, and abuse,” said the mother of four. “Don’t give in to violence. To all challenges, say simply: ‘Yes I can.’”
*All abuse survivors’ names have been changed.