Voter Education for Marginalized Communities in Yemen
IFES believes that strong democratic institutions empower all citizens to have a voice in the way they are governed. To promote this belief, IFES works to ensure its programming is inclusive of all populations. In Yemen, IFES implemented a project that targeted the traditionally marginalized—women, youth, and persons with disabilities. The project went a step further by also reaching out to the Akhdam population, a disenfranchised group of the Yemeni population. Zeinab Abdelkarim, IFES Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, tells us about this project.
In 2006, IFES implemented a voter education program in Yemen. Please tell us about the program and how it related to underrepresented populations?
Leading up to the 2006 local council and presidential elections, IFES worked with the United Nations Development Programme to provide a national voter education campaign for Yemen’s traditionally marginalized populations such as women, youth and persons with disabilities. It also included outreach to ethnic minorities like the Akhdam, a disenfranchised segment of the Yemeni population. The campaign prioritized outreach to members of these groups living in rural communities, which often lack access to traditional sources of voter education information such as radio or television. High illiteracy rates among these underrepresented groups contribute to a widespread unfamiliarity with democracy, political and human rights, and electoral processes such as registration, voting and campaigning.
Tell us more about the Akhdam. Who are they? What sort of discrimination do they face?
The Akhdam – or Al-Muhamasheen*, as I prefer to call them – are a marginalized group in Yemen’s society that generally live in segregated slums on the edges of major cities and are known to work as garbage collectors and street sweepers.
In 2012, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that Al-Muhamasheen make up roughly 2 to 5 percent of the population, between 500,000 and 1 million people.
Al-Muhamasheen face chronic discrimination; they lack access to education, healthcare and jobs. They are also often denied identification documents. Although this discrimination is not institutionalized by the law, the government has done little to improve the living conditions of this group.
How did IFES’ project help reach underrepresented populations in Yemen?
To ensure greater electoral participation from these underrepresented populations, IFES trained local civil society organizations (CSOs) to conduct voter education for the registration and Election Day processes through face-to-face campaigning. The aim was to enable citizens to make informed decisions about the registration and Election Day processes and to provide them with accurate, culturally sensitive and timely electoral information about these processes. This gave marginalized groups, especially in rural locations, an opportunity to obtain electoral information in a simple format and receive immediate answers to their questions. Through these training sessions, IFES helped CSOs expand their capacity to conduct outreach to marginalized communities and empower members of these communities through increased access to information on the electoral process.
How did you transcend the barrier of illiteracy?
In Yemen – where rates of literacy are low and where there has been a widespread unfamiliarity with the newly defined process of registration, voting and elections – IFES decided to use face-to-face interactions. Community gatherings and door-to-door campaigns, for example, became important tools to empower marginalized groups with the skills, knowledge and attitude that will allow them to become active, engaged citizens. IFES ensured that most of the educators leading these face-to-face interactions were native Yemenis and inhabitants of the areas and governorates where sessions were to be conducted. This helped to reduce distrust in the process.
The conversational nature of the meetings gave illiterate and semiliterate people an opportunity to ask questions and get answers immediately. It also reduced ignorance about the electoral process and the fear associated with not knowing what to do or what to expect. In groups, workshops and information sessions, people realize they are not alone in their concerns about voting. Knowing that others are going to vote increases their confidence about exercising their right to vote.
What were some of the successes you saw with this project?
IFES was able to train 20 local non-governmental organizations serving marginalized groups in their own communities on the methodology, design and implementation of face-to-face voter education campaigns. Training was also provided on campaign messages and presentation skills. This strategy was aimed at sustaining in-country capacity to develop future programs and ensure that best practices and lessons learned are retained.
Without a doubt, the project also had a ripple effect – especially among citizens attending workshops or information sessions who were able to access up-to-date information and then pass it down to others, thereby enabling them to become resources in their communities.
What was most exciting to you about that experience?
It was thrilling for me to take part in training and building capacity within the civil society organizations that served the marginalized populations so they could learn how to better plan and implement effective voter education campaigns. It is a gratifying experience to be part of a program that has effectively contributed to raising awareness of political rights among these marginalized groups in the targeted locations and motivating them to exercise their right to vote.
What measures is the current government taking to ensure all citizens are able to participate in the political process?
At present, high public expectations surround political reform in Yemen. In this charged atmosphere, it will be imperative for transitional authorities to pursue national unity and political reform in a participatory, transparent manner that seeks to address long-standing problems and contentious issues. Public information and outreach will be extremely important throughout this process. There are serious risks if public institutions lack the capacity to engage in public information and outreach or fail to establish mechanisms to facilitate and sustain deliberation. Lack of public information will contribute both to increased cynicism about the genuine nature of democratic reforms and the integrity of the transitional processes, as well as to growing political tensions, which will result in further instability or even violence.
*The traditional name (“Akdham”) translates from the Arabic as “servants,” while “Al-Muhamasheen” means “the marginalized ones.”