As soon as he received the news that she had breast cancer in late 2019, Afrah Mohammed's husband, 45, announced that he would devote himself entirely to serving her, and his complete willingness to sell everything he owns in order to cover the expenses of her treatment.
But as the days and months passed, his enthusiasm waned, and his steps to visit her faltered. His calls to check on her decreased, until he cut her off completely as if she had died. She had been staying for about three years at Dar Al-Hayat Center for Social Welfare of the National Cancer Control Foundation in Sana'a. It was as if she had become just a ghost he was trying the best he could to avoid.
This is how Afrah sums up her feelings of disappointment to Raseef22 at what she says is how her husband abandoned his duties towards her and broke his promises to stand by her until the last moment.
"Twenty years of marriage and the three children I gave birth for him did not act as a saving grace for me. He forgot about all that and turned his back on me,” she says with sorrow.
Afrah has no one left to console her except for her sick friends who are patients with her in the center. Her father passed away a long time ago, while her mother and married siblings are struggling with their extreme poverty in their village in Taiz Governorate, and cannot afford transportation to check on her.
As for her children, who live with their father in Al Hudaydah Governorate, she talks to them from time to time by phone, which is the thing that eases her pain the most, she says.
"Some of these female patients are in the prime of their youth, yet their husbands left them battling cancer alone. Many of them have benign tumors and yet they were still abandoned"
Afrah dreams of being rid of her illness and investing in her diploma in Islamic studies, which she obtained from the College of Education in Al Hudaydah Governorate. Her eyes fill with tears as she speaks of her hopes and dreams, "I wasn’t able to find a government job in the past, so I volunteered to work as a teacher for five years, and I will go back to that if I am cured. The important thing is that I get to serve people."
She points to a group of young women busy in conversation nearby, and whispers, "Some of them are in the prime of their youth, yet their husbands left them battling cancer alone. Many of them have benign tumors and yet they were still abandoned."
The director of early detection of breast cancer at the National Cancer Control Foundation, Dr. Asma Amin, points out that the difficult living conditions that Yemenis experience in general, and the high costs of cancer treatment in particular, "are among the main reasons that push some husbands to abandon their wives who are suffering from cancer. This negatively affects their psychological state, their interaction with treatment, and compounds their pain.” She adds with regret, "Many abandoned (female) patients have resigned themselves to their fate, and feel that death is closer to them than life, after their husbands abandoned them."
Maha Ali, 19, from Al Mahwit Governorate, got married in 2021, and her husband divorced her as soon as he discovered she had breast cancer. Not only that, she tells Raseef22 in a voice choked by pain, but he also "filed a lawsuit against my family in court demanding that they hand over the dowry and all the sums of money he spent during our marriage, after accusing them of deceiving him and hiding my disease from him, even though I found out I was sick after we had gotten married, and he knows that very well."
"My husband divorced me as soon as we discovered I have breast cancer, then filed a lawsuit against my family demanding we give him my dowry and the money he spent during our marriage, accusing us of hiding my illness despite knowing we found out later"
Maha left Dar Al-Hayat for Social Welfare after completing her months-long treatment and recovering. But she has not yet recovered from the trauma of the illness she got rid of in its early stages, and from the way her ex-husband treated her.
She takes a deep breath and then says with some relief, "I got rid of two cancers, the first one would have spread throughout my body, and the second, throughout my entire life."
Afrah and Maha, along with dozens of others, have benefited from the services provided by the National Cancer Control Foundation and its Al-Hayat Center, by sheltering women and children with cancer who are receiving treatment in hospitals in the capital, Sana'a.
In addition, the foundation provides them with some medicines, conducts medical examinations, and helps them with 30% of the costs of surgical operations and chemotherapy doses.
According to the deputy director of the foundation, Abdel Moneim al-Shumairi, it is "a national non-profit charity organization that has an independent financial status. It exercises its activities and powers on a national charitable basis in accordance with the procedures stipulated in its statute, and in accordance with the principles of the foundation's constitution."
The foundation was established in 2003, in the capital Sana'a, and has many branches in the governorates of Ibb, Al Hudaydah, Taiz, Aden and Saada, as well as another branch that was recently opened in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
Al-Shumairi stated that the foundation receives support from "philanthropists and merchants" and launches advertising campaigns, confirming that the money goes to providing shelter, food, and treatment for cancer patients.
Media reports citing the Ministry of Public Health and Population in Sana'a indicate that the number of cancer patients in Yemen has reached 71,000 cases during the past eight years, and that 9,000 new cases of cancer are recorded annually, with at least 12 people having died from the disease.
The neighboring governorates of Al Hudaydah and Hajjah are among the governorates with the highest number of cancer cases in Yemen.
"Many abandoned female patients have resigned themselves to their fate, and feel that death is closer to them than life, after their husbands abandoned them"
Dr. Amal al-Ariqi, a diagnostic radiology consultant at the National Cancer Control Foundation in Sana'a, says that the number of cancer patients in Yemen is increasing compared to the period before the war that broke out in 2014.
She stresses that breast cancer now affects girls at a young age (14–15 years), whereas before the war, in general, only women who were in their forties and older would get it.
Al-Ariqi tells Raseef22 that new types of "malignant" cancers have spread among Yemenis, whereas they were rare before the outbreak of the conflict in the country.
These cancers include, "Lymphomas that affect children and adults, and tumors of the intestine, colon, throat and eyes.” She believes that their emergence is related to the war and the remnants of bombs and missiles, as well as famine and the difficult living and psychological conditions that Yemenis experienced during wartime, in addition to some of the pesticides that are used to spray qat trees, and that are internationally banned, she said.
Death is a relief
"Women are the most vulnerable segment of Yemeni society, and cancer makes them even more vulnerable." This is how the issue is summed up by a nurse at the Al-Hayat Center, who asked not to be named.
"Most of the center's patients have been abandoned by their husbands because of their illness, and they are waiting for death to rid them of their psychological pain that has been left behind by betrayal more than the disease itself," she tells Raseef22.
"The family of my husband, with whom I have no children, thinks that cancer is a contagious disease, and has convinced him of that, so he kicked me out"
According to the nurse, many husbands leave their wives as soon as they discover that they have cancer, and the common denominator between them all is their difficult living conditions and their inability to afford cancer treatment, which usually takes a long time, and they believe that at the end of it all is death.
The nurse points out that many women go to the Al-Hayat Center after their husbands abandon them, and the cancer has ravaged in their bodies, "Sadness multiplies their pain, leaving them with no choice but to wait for death, as all their hopes and aspirations to live or recover collapse, and even if they recover, they see that there is no use in that, as they feel that they no longer have anyone in life to live for."
Divorce, even though the tumor is benign
There are 120 women with cancer continuing their treatment in Al-Hayat Center, and their departure depends on their condition. Meanwhile there are other patients whose husbands abandoned them that have no choice but to stay there, and the center accommodates them indefinitely.
Samar Awad, 35, from Dhamar Governorate in central Yemen, is one of them. She was able to benefit from the services provided by the center in Sana'a for a whole year, until she recovered from cancer, and then left.
Only a week later, she returned to the center asking for housing, because her husband had divorced her and married another woman, so she had nowhere else to go, so the center's management allowed her to reside there permanently.
At the center is a mother who was divorced due to her daughter's illness, Umm Salma. The 45-year-old mother learned of her young daughter's illness six years ago, and had to travel from her region in Hajjah Governorate, northwest of Yemen, to accompany her and stay with her at the National Cancer Control Foundation in Sana'a for treatment, which prompted her husband, "Abu Salma", to divorce her and abandon her and his daughter, then marry another woman.
There is also Rahima Hammoud, 23, from Dhamar Governorate, whose four year-long marriage did not help her the slightest bit when her husband abandoned her as soon as he learned that she had a cancerous tumor in the womb.
With tear-filled eyes, Rahima confirms to Raseef22 that "the family of my husband, with whom I have no children, thinks that cancer is a contagious disease, and has convinced him of that, so he kicked me out".
"I do not know my fate and what will happen to me after I complete the treatment. Death is more merciful to me than what my husband and father did to me”
Rahima has been living at the National Cancer Control Foundation in Sana'a for eight months and is receiving a part of the treatment at the center and another part at the Republican Governmental Hospital, with the help of the Cancer Fund. She says in a pained voice that no one is there to accompany her, and everyone left her, "Even my father stayed with me for only a week, and now I no longer see him anymore, and my mother is divorced and lives with another man."
She swallows and lets out a groan of pain before continuing, "I do not know my fate and what will happen to me after I complete the treatment. Death is more merciful to me than what my husband and father did to me”.
The director of Dar Al-Hayat Center for Social Welfare of the National Cancer Control Foundation in Sana'a, Wejdan al-Jarmouzi, tells Raseef22 that the center’s capacity is 120 beds which are just for women, children and their companions. Food, transportation and accommodation are provided until the completion of treatment and there are those who recovered from the disease a year and more ago, but they stayed because they have nowhere else to go.
She sadly adds that some husbands abandon their wives even if their tumors turn out to be not malignant — but rather benign — and their lives are not under threat, under the pretext of financial inability.
To also cover the point of view of the other side, namely husbands who abandon their wives who are ill with cancer, we contacted Ali Hammoud (pseudonym), 37, who stated that it was his deteriorating economic situation and the fact that he was drowning in debt that led him to abandon his wife three years ago, after a marriage that lasted ten years, during which he had two sons from his wife who now live with his parents in Ibb Governorate in central Yemen.
Ali was an Arabic teacher, but he has been unemployed since the suspension of the distribution of salaries in 2016. He now relies entirely on a qat field he owns, and its sales barely provide for his food.
He seemed to be weighed down by guilt as he told Raseef22, "I only divorced her because of my harsh circumstances, and cancer requires a large budget, and I didn't even have the money to transport her to the hospital."
Divorce via WhatsApp
Dr. Nabil Al-Sharjabi, a professor of sociology and crisis management at Hudaydah University, has witnessed some of these cases. He explains to Raseef22 that the main reason why husbands abandon their wives as soon as they discover that they have cancer is purely a financial one.
He explains, "There are those who suffer great difficulties because of the costly treatment, which sometimes can reach up to millions of Yemeni rials, despite the presence of some free services that cancer patients receive from some parties, as cancer treatment centers do not bear the full cost and expenses, which means that the husband bears financial burdens, which he may not be able to."
But some stories show that financial hardship is not the only reason, and that one of the main reasons is the husband's refusal to support and be there for his wife in adversity. Samah Siddiq, 17, fights back tears as she recounts to Raseef22 how her husband, an expatriate in Saudi Arabia, sent her a message via WhatsApp saying that he had divorced her.
She fights back tears as she recounts how her husband sent her a WhatsApp message saying he divorced her, "The shock of the WhatsApp message was worse than the news of having cancer. I no longer have any hope in life. All my hopes and dreams are over now"
She bursts into tears before getting a hold of herself and adds, "We had tied the knot a year and a half ago, but without having a wedding night, because I was young and also by virtue of his work and having to travel, but my breast cancer made him change his mind and leave me."
She shakes her head to express her distress, "The shock of the WhatsApp message was stronger than the news of me having cancer. I no longer have any hope in life. All my hopes and dreams were tied to him and my future with him as a wife, and all that is over now."
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