Slavery in Yemen

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Although slavery is recognized as being illegal around the world by international treaties and conventions, evidence has shown that there is still existing slavery in Yemen, and the number of slaves is in fact growing. Slavery effects and inhibits many basic human rights, and was specifically abolished by Yemen in 1962. The fact that slavery is alleged to still exist is a major human rights issue.

Yemen is in Southwest Asia, and is a mostly Arab country. Yemen is considered a developing country, and has been in a state of political crisis since 2011. The head of state is the president, who is currently Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Prime Minister (Ali Muhammad Mujawar) heads the government, forming a presidential republic.[1] An investigation conducted as a joint effort by local press in Yemen, human rights activists and the wider media uncovered an array of evidence strongly suggesting slavery is still alive in Yemen, with a former slave who had recently been freed admitting other members of his family were still being used as slaves. In this in depth investigation, that was done over a period of several months, slave owners admitted to selling slaves to countries such as Brazil and Saudi Arabia for significant amounts of money, suggesting that the problem of modern slavery goes far deeper than just Yemen. It was also discovered that not unlike previous times, slaves were inherited by their owners through family, as well as being bought and sold. The slaves are under complete control of their owners, an example of this being that although sometimes the slaves are allowed to marry one another, they are not allowed a ceremony, and are only allowed to see each other during an emergency or at night when their owner does not require them. In a sense, slavery has even been formally recognised in Yemen, through a judge in the Courts confirming the transfer of a slave from one owner to another. This caused an outcry by the community and the media, which was allegedly quickly hushed by the government.[2]

History of slavery

The first and foremost issue with slavery, is that it inhibits several of the fundamental rights and freedoms that all humans are entitled to, including slaves. Slavery dates back to ancient civilization as early as 7th Century BC, when towns and cities began to be formed, and a realization that cheap labour was needed. The first known slaves were in Ancient Greece, where both Athens and Sparta depended solely upon forced labour. In the 2nd century BC, Rome began to greatly increase its use of slaves, and also increase force used on slaves, going as far as to whip the slaves into continuing their efforts of work. By the Middle Ages (6th-15th Centuries), slaves were mainly used in offices, private homes and armies. Arab countries, including Yemen, contributed towards the growing African slave trade, with stations even being created specifically for slave trading. Slaves were generally captured in Africa, and then traveled in terrible conditions by ship to countries where there was a demand for them. It is estimated that one in six of these slaves died during the journey, as they were kept restrained in chains, poorly fed, and kept in filth.[3] Slaves that were bought into Arab countries were predominantly male, who were used as servants, labourers or soldiers. Any female slaves were used either as servants, or sexual slaves . By 1688, The Abolitionist movement had begun, which saw the beginning of the supposed end of the slave trade around the world.[citation needed]

Modern day slavery in Yemen

For someone to be considered a slave, they must fit into one of the following four categories: 1) Be threatened, either physically or mentally, to work. 2) Controlled or owned by another person, through either threats, or abuse that is physical or mental. 3) Treated as a chattel, bought or sold as property, dehumanised. 4) Restrained physically, or has limitations on freedom of movement.[4] It has been reported that two main types of slavery currently exist in Yemen. The first is general human trafficking, which can be defined as adults or children lured into a situation that results in their exploitation, by way of threats, violence or deliberate misrepresentation, and then forced to perform certain jobs.[5] The second type is those who are not subject to trafficking, but instead still endure slavery and abuse. Such abuse has been reported to be depriving slaves of a basic right of access to water, unless their owner permits it.[6] Children are extremely vulnerable to slavery in Yemen, as any children of existing slaves are also destined for a life of slavery, and also children are often forced to work for minimal, or even no pay, in the agricultural sector. The legal age for children to begin work in Yemen is 14, and the minimum age they can begin work that is considered to be hazardous is 18. However, in 2012, it was found that 13.6% of children aged 5 to 14 were working across several sectors, though the most predominant sector involving children was found to be the agricultural sector, which incidentally is also one of the most hazardous sectors.[7] As well as child slavery, it has been discovered that there are also adult slaves who are controlled by their owners, who work in private homes, made to perform certain tasks.[2]

Abolishment of slavery

The worldwide abolition of slavery began in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the Declaration of the Rights of Man was adopted in 1789, and stated “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” By the nineteenth century, an increasing number of countries such as The Netherlands were banning participation with the African Slave Trade, and soon after abolished slavery in all of its colonies, along with [France]. By the 1900s, abolition of slavery was spreading globally, with countries such as Burma and Sierra Leone following the movement.[8] In 1962, Yemen was one of the last countries worldwide to abolish slavery. Besides this, Yemen is also a member state of the United Nations.[9] All United Nations member states are subject to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which specifically says in Article 4, that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.[10]” This declaration outlines basic rights that all human beings are entitled to. The rights outlined in the declaration become legally enforceable, in the fact that they define the terms ‘fundamental freedoms’ and ‘human rights’, which themselves feature in the United Nations Charter. All member states of the United Nations are legally obliged to comply with the United Nations Charter.[11] Besides this, the Slavery Convention 1926 also exists, which at its creation aimed to prevent slavery, and the slave trade. It specifically defined what slavery and the slave trade were, and all participants agreed to prevent, and gradually eliminate all slavery that existed within their country, and also to create penalties for anyone found to be slave trading, or involved in the control of a slave. As of 1987, Yemen became a party to this convention, meaning they agreed with the aim of it, and agreed to the obligations it imposed upon parties.[12]

Causes of modern day slavery

A likely cause of the existing slavery in Yemen with regards to the illegality of it, is the extent of the poverty within certain communities. Abdulhadi Al-Azazi, a member of the team investigating slavery in Yemen, suggested that because of the levels of poverty, affected people may enable themselves to be controlled by wealthy people in order to have a better quality of life than what they can provide for themselves.[6] Another possible factor in the existence of slavery in Yemen is government corruption, as slavery is easy to get away with, and no real steps are taken to put a stop to it, which is what was seen in the investigation mentioned earlier in this article. Besides this, the slavery cycle is difficult to get out of when there is no government intervention, or real awareness by the public and other countries as to what is going on, which is part of the cause of slavery in Yemen. If people aren’t aware of what is happening, they cannot do anything about it. The slavery cycle has been described as poverty, followed by slavery, then as a result lack of education, and therefore no kind of freedom at all. This means any children of existing slaves are lead to believe the same as their parents – that they are not entitled to freedom and they must do as they are told by their owners.[13]


The slavery that has been proven to be happening in Yemen today is a huge human rights issue, and until the government steps in to prevent it, or the wider global community is made more aware of it, it will be very difficult to bring it to a complete stop. Every human being, as per article four of the Universal Declaration Human Rights, has a right to not be held in slavery or servitude, which is a stark contrast as to what many people held in slavery, and possibly slave owners are not aware of. As well as wider global publicity on the issue, greater education on human rights within Yemen may also assist with the complete abolition of slavery.


  1. Daniel McLaughlin Yemen: The Bradt Travel Guide p.3
  2. 2.0 2.1 Al Jazeera World. "Slavery in Yemen". Retrieved 27 November 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "HISTORY OF SLAVERY". Retrieved 27 November 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. dotMailer. "Anti-Slavery - What is modern slavery". Retrieved 27 November 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. dotMailer. "Anti-Slavery - Human Trafficking". Retrieved 27 November 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 "New report finds slavery present in western Yemen". Yemen Times. Retrieved 27 November 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor - Yemen". Retrieved 27 November 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Slavery in History". Retrieved 27 November 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "United Nations Member States". Retrieved 27 November 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Slavery Convention". Retrieved 27 November 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Causes and Effects". Retrieved 27 November 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>