The legendary resilience of Yemen’s women faces a new test: the Coronavirus

I gave birth to my son four years ago, amid a background of falling bombs. Since that day, I have been praying for us to live long enough to see the other side of the war that has been tearing my country – Yemen – apart for more than five years. Today, I have a new fear: COVID-19.

I work for Save the Children. We are on the front lines one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. I have met children and adults who have witnessed the loss of family members in attacks that destroyed their homes and left them severely injured. I have spoken to parents who are unable to provide the basic needs for their children to survive. I have seen families flee to displacement camps where water and food are often a luxury. I have encountered hundreds of children who were out of school trying to support their parents by bringing home pieces of dry bread they found or a bottle of clean water. I also met children who were trying to cope with a new disability inflicted by explosive remnants they mistook for toys.

Through it all, I have seen women show unparalleled strength and resilience, picking up the pieces and moving on. You’d think that a woman whose home comprises of two rooms for a displaced family of 10-15 people, or one whose child has been admitted to a health facility after malnutrition turned them to skin and bones, would have no will to keep living.

Every time I asked women: “How are you?”, they all responded with the same answer “Alhamdulillah” which simply means “grateful”. I always thought how could you be grateful when you are going through so much? You see, in my country, 21 per cent of females who are the head of their household are under 18. They are still children themselves. Many of them have had to skip meals to make sure their children have enough to eat. Others have sold everything they own – jewelry, land, livestock – to put bread on the table. And many others have accumulated debt.

I didn’t realize what “Alhamdulillah” really meant until I met one woman in the city-port of Hodeida. A mother of four, one day she went out to get some vegetables to cook for her family. An airstrike hit her home killing her husband, daughter, and grandson and injuring her two other children. She welled up with tears while telling me the story, but then looked me straight in the eyes and said with a smile “Alhamdulillah, what can we do? Was there anything in my hand that I could’ve done to stop what happened? No. They were home, where we were supposed to feel safe. Luckily I still have my other two children alive. Other women probably lost their entire family while they were asleep. Now that we lost our home, we will move to live with a relative and I will register my young children to a new school and life will continue.”

That’s when I realized that Yemeni women can’t afford to be weak. They find strength and resilience amid living an unbearable life cornered by the triple threat of starvation, bombs and disease.

Now, coronavirus is not just knocking at the door, but threatening to break it down. Five people in this war-torn country have tested positive for the virus and we are severely underprepared.  If we don’t manage to limit the spread, this will be the start of a new nightmare. Only half of health facilities in the country are still fully functional, and there are 700 ICU beds, including 60 for children, and 500 ventilators for the whole population of more than 30 million people. That is one ventilator per every 60,000 people.

How can the country apply the rules of prevention – hand washing and physical distancing – in these circumstances?

I don’t have the answer, because it needs to be a collective effort from everyone involved, the authorities, donors, the aid organizations and the local community, to do the best we can to limit the impact of an outbreak. We need all the support we can get, medical equipment, training, and funding for humanitarian work. The needs that were already so high, are only set to increase.

When my son was born, I would stare at him for hours at night, looking at his peaceful face, and feeling sad and guilty for bringing him to such an insecure life. But ever since I met all these inspiring women, I’ve made a commitment to be strong like them.

They have taught me to say “Alhamdulillah” every day, for I can provide safety, health and love for my son. And with the help of my fellow country men and women, and the international community, I hope we will keep Yemen’s children and their families safe from COVID-19, so that they can grow up to fulfill their dreams.

By Sukaina Sharafuddin, media and communications coordinator at Save the Children in Yemen. Save the Children is supporting 21 health facilities in Yemen with funding from the Government of Canada.