Akhdam children in a Ta'izz neighborhood.
|Regions with significant populations|
|Sana'a, Aden, Ta'izz, Lahij, Abyan, Al Hudaydah, Al Mukalla|
Al-Akhdam, Akhdam or Achdam (singular Khadem, meaning "servant" in Arabic; also called Al-Muhamasheen, "the marginalized ones") is a minority social group in Yemen. Although the Akhdams are Arabic-speaking Muslims just like any other Yemeni, they are considered to be at the very bottom of the supposedly abolished caste ladder, are socially segregated, and are mostly confined to menial jobs in the country's major cities. According to official estimates, the Akhdam numbered between 500,000 to 3,500,000 individuals.
The exact origins of Al-Akhdam are uncertain. One popular belief holds that they are descendants of Nilotic Sudanese people who accompanied the Abyssinian army during the latter's occupation of Yemen in the pre-Islamic period. Once the Abyssinian troops were finally expelled at the start of the Muslim era, some of the Sudanese migrants are said to have remained behind, giving birth to the Akhdam people. This belief, however, was denied and described as a myth by Hamud al-Awdi, a professor of sociology at Sana University.
Another theory maintains that they are of Veddoid origin. The Akhdam are generally shorter and darker than typical Yemenis, and can also be distinguished from the majority by its members' Veddoid-like physical features and stature. Genetic studies by Lehmann (1954) and Tobias (1974) further noted the sickle cell trait at high frequencies amongst the Akhdam. According to Lehmann, this suggests a biological link with the Veddoids of South Asia, who also have a high incidence of the trait.
Societal Discrimination in Yemen
Anthropologists such as Vombruck postulate that Yemen's history and social hierarchy that developed under various regimes, including the Zaydi Imamate, had created a hereditary caste-like society. Till today, the Al-Akhdam people exists at the very bottom of Yemeni social strata.
The Al-Akhdam community suffers from extreme discrimination, persecution, and social exclusion from the mainstream Yemeni society. The contempt for the Akhdam people is expressed by a traditional Yemeni proverb:
"Clean your plate if it is touched by a dog, but break it if it's touched by a Khadem.″
Though their social conditions have improved somewhat in modern times, Al-Akhdam are still stereotyped by mainstream Yemeni society; they have been called lowly, dirty and immoral. Intermarriages between the conventional Yemeni society with the Akhdam community are taboo and virtually prohibited, as the Al-Akhdam are deemed as untouchables. Men who do marry into the community risk banishment by their families.
In the face of extreme societal discrimination, the Al-Akhdam people are forced to work menial and dirty jobs such as sweeping, shoe-making and the cleaning of latrines, vocations for which they are still known to this day. Those who are unemployed, most of whom are women, usually resort to begging.
Even the Akhdam people who are employed are not spared from discrimination. Akhdam street sweepers are rarely granted contracts even after decades of work, despite the fact that all Yemeni civil servants are supposed to be granted contracts after six months. They receive no benefits, and almost no time off.
The Akhdam reside in slum districts that are generally isolated from the rest of Yemeni society. It is next to impossible for the Akhdam people to afford shelter with even the most basic amenities such as electricity, running water and sewage system. Accordingly, Akhdam generally live in small huts haphazardly built of wood and cloth.
Due to poverty and the unsanitary living conditions, the Akhdam people are vulnerable to preventable diseases. The death rates from preventable diseases are worse than the nationwide average in Yemen. Many Al-Akhdam children suffer from diseases such as dyspnoea, malaria and polio, and the death rate is high. The reported infant mortality rate is also described as "appalling". Out of the deaths reported in an Akhdam shantytown over a year, about a half were children under the age of 5, a quarter of whom were in the first month of life.
Studies by Al-Serouri et al. further report a poorer understanding of HIV risks amongst the Al-Akhdam community. Accordingly, group members also have higher reported rates and risks of contracting HIV infections.
Many NGOs and charitable organizations from other countries such as CARE International are reportedly working toward improving the living circumstances of the Akhdam. Such initiatives include the building of a chicken farm, sanitation projects, the provision of electricity and classes aimed at eradicating illiteracy. The extent of these efforts, however, is disputed, most notably by Huda Sief. Government corruption also means that monetary aid intended for the Akhdam is often misused or stolen.
Government officials, while admitting an historical disdain for the Akhdam among conventional Yemeni society, insist that there is no official discrimination. The Yemeni government has occasionally built shelters for the Akhdam, although it is reported that 30% of Akhdam who received such state housing sold it, choosing instead to return to their original neighborhoods. Despite the supposed absence of official discrimination, many Akhdam claim that officials often block their attempts to seek state services at schools and hospitals.
Most Al-Akhdam live in segregated slums on the outskirts of Yemen's main urban centers. Many of them reside in the capital Sana'a. Others can also be found in Aden, Ta'izz, Lahij, Abyan, Al Hudaydah and Al Mukalla.
According to official estimates, the Akhdam numbered around 500,000 individuals in 2004. Other estimates put their number at over 3.5 million residents in 2013, out of a total Yemeni population of around 22 million.
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