Pickles and dresses: Yemeni women defy cultural norms with start-up businesses to support families

Red Cross helps 44 talented women to provide a future for their children

Salamah is 30 years old with three daughters who lost her husband during the conflict. Lahaj, Yemen, February 2021. Courtesy International Committee of the Red Cross

A group of Yemeni women established successful businesses in the middle of years of war and destruction, thanks to start-up support from the Red Cross.

For the past six years, women and children struggled to survive as the country's economy collapsed and hunger and disease raged.

But the International Committee of the Red Cross gave up to $1,000 to each of 50 beneficiaries, of whom 44 were women, in the southern province of Lahaj as part of a macro-economic project to support start-ups.

"These women are the breadwinners of their families," Suhair Zakkout, the Red Cross spokeswoman in Yemen, told The National.

In the country, women are expected to stay at home, rather than work, Ms Zakkout said.

"But these women were strong enough to say, 'Here I am'," she said.

“Every woman provided a simple cost estimation of her project and basic market study, and every woman got an amount of money according to the application submitted."

Yemen’s dire economic situation is putting huge pressure on families' providers, who are usually men and are more likely to be killed in the conflict.

Women find themselves dealing with the trauma of losing a loved one and being displaced, but also needing to find ways to provide food and medicine for their families, Ms Zakkout said.

Dress designer and pickle entrepreneur

Salamah, 30, lost her husband during the conflict that has engulfed Yemen for nearly seven years.

“He was the family’s breadwinner and I felt safe when he was around us," Salamah said. "Our lives turned upside-down after his death."

Salamah’s niece taught her how to sew and she began repairing clothes for locals. With the Red Cross assistance she bought a sewing machine and she now designs women’s dresses.

Salamah is 30 years old with three daughters who lost her husband during the conflict. Lahaj, Yemen, February 2021. Courtesy International Committee of the Red Cross

Electricity cuts put her work in jeopardy but the Red Cross gave Salamah a solar panel that provides enough power to run the machine.

“I was able to overcome one challenge but I have a long way to go,” she said.

“I hope one day I can expand my project and sell my products to fashion shops in the city.

"Only then will I be confident that my daughters can finish their university education."

Nassemh’s husband works in Shabwa governorate as a carpenter and does not make enough money for their family of four.

“I used to borrow money from our neighbours and friends to feed my children,” Nassemh said.

She is passionate about making different kinds of pickles, lemon, mango and tamarind with green pepper.

Naseemh, 40 years old, is married with two children, Gana 8 years old and Mosa 5 years old. Lahaj, Yemen, February 2021 . Courtesy International Committee of the Red Cross

“I produce these three types of pickles," Nassemh said. "My sister helps me sell them to grocery shops, popular markets and to people working at government offices."

Like Salamah, she hopes she can send her children to university to finish their education and have a better future.

With the Red Cross's assistance, she is able to feed her children, pay for their medication and buy the ingredients to keep her business running.

“I also save a little for the future,” Nassemh said.

The war in Yemen began when Iran-backed Houthi rebels took over the capital in a 2015 coup, leading the internationally recognised government to call on allies to assist.

A Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict months later.

UN efforts to mediate an end to the conflict looked hopeful in December 2018, with an agreement reached in Stockholm for ceasefires in the port city of Hodeidah and two other ports, Salif and Ras Isa, and a successful prisoner exchange.

But its implementation stalled and the rebels are now refusing to sign up to an internationally lauded Saudi plan for a ceasefire and political negotiations.

Ms Zakkout said humanitarian agencies can neither feed millions of Yemenis nor provide for the healthcare needs of the entire country.

"Yemenis will need more than aid to survive the crisis and ward off famine," she said.