Yemen’s war pushes women to the digital world
The war in Yemen, since its start in 2014, closed many doors to Yemenis. According to the World Health Organization, 82 per cent of people are in need of humanitarian aid, and 85 per cent of the population is unemployed due to the current crisis. However, although the country is rapidly deteriorating because of continuing hostilities, it hasn’t stopped women from searching for better opportunities.
Through online trade, women have been able to earn a steady income; this has been necessary as salaries were irregularly issued to government employees, amounting to 1.2 million people, and numerous public and private sector associations have closed. Many women decided to engage in e-commerce through social media platforms, notably Facebook and WhatsApp, the two most used social media platforms in Yemen. It is now possible for women who aren’t academically qualified to find a steady income. This strategy is also helpful for women who aren’t able to work outside their home for various reasons, including conservative social norms – in particular, ones based on the concepts of honor and shame – and the obvious dangers caused by war – such as a lack of security and indiscriminate shelling.
The products women market and trade are varied, including items such as cosmetics, shoes, clothes, bags, handmade items, household items, perfumes and candy; men tend to focus their trade on cars, real estate, and weapons.
Increasing family incomes
Fatima al-Areeki is a saleswoman. She has a business named ‘Alzahrat Alzarka’a Products’ consisting of cosmetic and diet items. Fatima launched her project in November 2017, in order to improve the family income, because of the critical financial state most Yemeni families are currently enduring.
Fatima buys her products then delivers them to customers across many governorates. Customers begin by initially paying a deposit, then Fatima receives the rest of her payment after the products are delivered. But she is facing fierce competition from many WhatsApp trade groups. On consumer confidence about her products, she noted that women were skeptical of the products at first, but once they had tried them, their confidence in her and the products increased.
Last December, after she joined trade groups on WhatsApp, Hanan al-Memari decided to contact Vanilla Sweet, in order to become their sales representative in Taiz. She said they reached an agreement swiftly, and she started working for them immediately. Hanan was relieved that she was able to secure a job during this difficult period; but she also agreed with Fatima that there was fierce competition. The reason behind this competitiveness is that saleswomen compete to have the most number of clients in their WhatsApp groups – in order to increase their income and receive more gifts from their company.
Um Hisham’s story is similar to the Fatima and Hanan’s. Being the mother of four children, her motive to involve herself in online business was to find an alternative source of income to ease the suffering of her family. Um Hisham is now a saleswoman for DNX, a company that sells dietary supplements. She launched a group named ‘Our way to a healthier lifestyle’ last November, and started marketing through it. She is trying to provide a decent life for her children as her husband, who works as a teacher, has had his salary suspended.
Um Hisham promotes the company’s products and explains their benefits to her WhatsApp group, where customers can either buy the products directly from her or from the nearest retail store, referencing her as the saleswoman. Um Hisham then receives points from the company that can be later exchanged for a financial reward or in the form of products that she can sell for herself.
However, inflation and exchange rate instability between the Yemeni Rial and other foreign currencies has increased these women’s worries. Higher prices have reduced the number of consumers capable of purchasing the products, hence the losses many businesses endure, especially when they buy products for a very high price followed by unexpected inflation in the currency. It is worth noting that the exchange rate as of the end of 2017 was more than 500 Yemeni Rial to the dollar.
Although trade through social media is thriving in Yemen and is very lucrative for some, consumers still fear the concept. Areej Abdullah says that she never considered buying items on social media for two reasons: she doesn’t know the salesperson and she is unable to inspect the products. The lack of confidence between the two parties affects the exchange. In other cases, the price of products is very high considering the possibility of low quality.
However, Yusra doesn’t agree; she thinks that social media trade made her life easier as some products are not available in her governorate, and in this way they can easily be delivered to her. Despite her positive view, she does have some negative stories. On one occasion she bought a diet herb which was of an inferior quality, and so she decided not to use it. On another occasion she bought a dress which looked very striking on the pictures; however, after receiving it, she realized the fabric was not the kind she expected. She also complained about the slow speed of Internet which prevents her from viewing products.
Although there are now many trading groups on social media, workers in this field face numerous difficulties in a country that is always at the tail end of world polls. The Internet was introduced to Yemen in 1996, but prices for the service remain very high while the speed is very low. The Internet’s fiber optic cables have been sabotaged repeatedly, 180 times in 2012 alone; this causes the suspension of service for considerable periods of time. As of 2017, there were 3.58 billion Internet users around the globe; in Yemen around 6.7 million people had access to the Internet in 2016 compared to only 15,000 in the year 2000, meaning over 25 per cent of the population (roughly 26 million people) have access to the Internet.
A recent study by Yemen Icon, an online marketing firm, showed that social media users in Yemen, especially Facebook, have reached 1.7 million, more than 28 per cent of Internet users in the country. The study showed that 14 per cent of women used Facebook, while WhatsApp has the most users in Yemen, followed by Instagram, WeChat, and finally Telegram. According to the same study, 10 per cent of users surf the web for less than an hour daily, while 33 per cent use it between one and two hours daily, 54 per cent use it between three and six hours daily, and finally 3 per cent use it for more than 6 hours per day.
A lot of Yemeni families don’t have access to the Internet because they can’t afford the service. At the same time, lack of Internet use can also be attributed to local cultural norms which regard it as a time wasting tool and a way to corrupt the youth. This attitude led to the boom in local Internet cafes, a very lucrative business considering the number of people who require an Internet connection.
A new platform for trading
Facebook, considered one of the most used social media platforms in Yemen, has become a new arena for trade. Yemeni women use Facebook to sell handmade products such as woolen clothing items or modified accessories, as well as using the website to market their companies. Usually the number of users on a single WhatsApp group cannot exceed 500 members, but Facebook does not have these restrictions. After speaking with many women, we found that they also prefer Facebook because they fear distribution of their cell phone numbers, which could potentially lead to phone harassment by men; on Facebook, they can create profiles with fake names and maintain their anonymity.
For example, a group named ‘Azia Rawa’a’, run by a woman with the username ‘Mawj Albahr’, has 4,890 members to whom she promotes her products and services using different methods; she meets needs on-demand, including services such as writing on mugs, selling cakes and pastries, wedding planning, and cosmetics. She also owns a salon.
There are many success stories, particularly with salons where many women flock after reading advertisements and receiving notifications through social media. Women can now book ahead to get a manicure or new modern haircuts that are not available in famous salons.
Willpower and a sense of hope
There are many women who are seriously thinking about experimenting with social media, and they are making many online friends as a constructive step towards starting their own projects. Tasnim Mohamed, mother of four, is one of them. The difficulties caused by war have increased her suffering, and her husband’s salary is no longer sufficient due to inflation, although he works in the private sector. Tasnim could not handle the suffering, and decided to invest in her passion for making cakes to help her family, and so she created a WhatsApp group for the purpose. She fears the suspension of Internet in Taiz, a reoccurring problem in the city, instigated by fuel shortages in electricity plants, or because of political reasons, and bans on social media platforms, which happen from time to time.
Tasnim started learning how to design cakes professionally, and installed an Internet connection in her house. She was able to buy an oven along with other materials needed for her to commence work. She hopes that her project will improve the family income, allowing her to send her eldest son to a good school. For this purpose, Tasnim trains daily, for there is still hope to create a better reality than the one in which the people of Taiz, and Yemen in general, are currently living.