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Yemen: Houthis and STC accused of forcing Ethiopian women into 'sexual slavery'

Women trying to reach Saudi Arabia have been raped, trafficked and sexually assaulted while living in unorganised camps, Yemeni rights group alleges
Ethiopian and Eritrean women in a refugee camp managed by the UNHCR
Ethiopian and Eritrean women in a refugee camp managed by the UNHCR (Reuters)

Ethiopian women who try to cross into Saudi Arabia from Yemen are subject to "sexual slavery" and abuses by Houthi forces and fighters from the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a Yemeni human rights group has alleged.

Saudi border guard forces and internationally recognized government forces also committed violations against migrant women, including killing and maiming, the rights group added.

Representatives from Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni NGO that documents atrocities in the country, said Ethiopian women were routinely being abused by different parties in Yemen's grinding nine-year war.

"Women are facing sexual violence and harassment by all parties on the ground," a spokesperson, who researches migration issues at Mwatana, told Middle East Eye.

"We documented one example of a woman who was exposed to sexual violence for over five months, she was raped and got pregnant," he said. "There are also many girls who are being trafficked," he added.

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Thousands of Ethiopians flee across the Gulf of Aden every year with the hope of finding work in Saudi Arabia or the Arabian Gulf. More than 77,000 migrants have used Yemen as a transit point this year, a figure that has already surpassed last year's numbers.

The spokespersons claims build on a mounting body of evidence of serious human rights violations by Yemen's warring sides.

'It is deeply distressing to hear reports of Ethiopian women being subjected to forced sexual slavery and sexual harassment'

- Afrah Nasser, journalist

Human Rights Watch has previously reported that the Houthi rebels, who control much of the country's north, are targeting Ethiopian women trying to cross into neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

According to the spokespersons' remarks, however, mark the first time the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which controls large parts of the south, has been accused of doing the same.

He said that once in Yemen, the Ethiopians were mainly confined to makeshift tents or unorganised camps in the cities of Aden, Souk al Raqo, al-Thabet and Ataq, with women and children among the most vulnerable.

"Sometimes the abuse is an attempt by Houthi forces to get money," he said. "They sexually assault women and force them to get money from their families back in Ethiopia."

'Deeply distressing'

 Mwatana recorded a series of violations against 18 women between April 2016 and July 2023, including torture at the hands of security forces affiliated with the government in Marib as well as abuse by individuals linked to the Islah Party.

The organisation also described "dismal" conditions at detention facilities, with female detainees denied proper ventilation along with personal hygiene items.

Abdul Rashid Al-Faqih, the vice chair of Mwatana, said armed groups had also set up checkpoints along the Yemeni-Saudi border, where women were routinely stopped and harassed. 

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"The documented incidents by Mwatana are illustrative of the ordeal that civilian women undergo at the hands of security forces in Marib, who exploit the dire wartime conditions to persecute and intimidate women and their families," he said.

Afrah Nasser, a Yemeni non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, said it was "distressing to hear the reports" considering the long and rich history between the two nations.

"It is deeply distressing to hear reports of Ethiopian women being subjected to forced sexual slavery and sexual harassment," she said.

"Such actions are not only heinous violations of those women's fundamental human rights but also reflect a wider pattern of gender-based violence and discrimination that occurs across all of Yemen going totally unaddressed."

The conflict in Yemen, which has been raging since the Houthis seized Sanaa in 2014, has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and triggered a major humanitarian crisis.

A Saudi-led military intervention began in 2015, but a UN-brokered ceasefire in April 2022 drastically reduced casualties. The truce expired in October, but fighting has largely remained on hold.

Houthis deny claims

Speaking to MEE, senior Houthi official Ali Alqahoom denied the claims, adding that the reports had "no connection to the truth". 

"This organisation and others do not care about human rights, they operate under these names to serve foreign agendas and achieve their goals in exchange for dirty money. They do not care about the truth, but are accustomed to stories of cheap political blackmail and throwing false accusations," Alqahoom said.

Meanwhile, Ali Mahmood, the press and media officer for the STC's president, said it was the first time the secessionist movement had heard of its forces abusing migrants. 

"We will wait to recieve any further information. Allegations of human rights violations and abuses must be thoroughly investigated," he told MEE.

"Our commitment in the STC is for justice and accountability... The STC will support the independent judiciary and its investigations in any such matter," he added.

The STC, which believes the south should be an independent state, has previously been accused by the UN of holding hundreds of Yemenis arbitrarily and torturing prisoners.

In late August, HRW revealed that Saudi border guards killed hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the Yemeni-Saudi border over the past year.

Survivors said that Houthi members working with smugglers would extort or transfer them to detention centres, where people were abused until they could pay an "exit fee".

Witnesses also described how the bodies of men, women and children were strewn across the mountainous landscape along the border.

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