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THE number of single mothers and divorcees in Saudi Arabia is growing and so are the problems that they have to face.

Date: 2007-05-05

The traditional extended family structure is breaking down and many single women complain that the authorities do not provide them with welfare on trivial grounds forcing them to continue living miserable lives. This leads many to turn to begging.

A missing document or a lazy ex-husband who failed to register the births of his children is enough to prompt government officials to turn down applications for welfare.

One such case is that of a Saudi mother, who is divorced with nine children, the eldest of which is 22 and the youngest is only five years old. The mother, who wanted not to be identified, is 45 years old. She said that she is living on handouts.

“My husband left us without any reason. We went to the authorities asking for financial support, but they refused because we didn’t have the proper documents,” she said.

“The children’s relationship to their father cannot be proved. He didn’t register their births and he didn’t even bother changing his ID card to say he was married. We don’t even have a family card. All I have to prove our relationship is a marriage contract,” she added.

Another such single woman is Samia, who grew up in an orphanage, which she describes as being very spartan. “I finished primary school and then high school. I wanted to study further but the atmosphere at the orphanage wasn’t very helpful,” she said.

Samia then got married to a man who divorced her after only six months of marriage. “I ended up on the street. It was then that I got to know some good girls who themselves were orphans. I told them about my wish to continue my education. They helped me out quite a lot and I managed to complete a course in social science at university,” she said.

“I’ve applied for various jobs at the Civil Services Office but I’m always left disappointed. It’s been four years now and I’ve still not got a job,” she said. Samia said that she is unable to get references and that is what prevents her from getting a job.

“There are people living in severe poverty without electricity, water and other types of utilities. They live in old shelters that are unfit for habitation,” said an official at a charity house in Jeddah. The charity provides them with necessary assistance. “At the moment we’re helping around 2,000 individuals,” he said.

“Women’s poverty wasn’t so profound before the recent economic changes that took place in the Saudi society. In those days poverty used to affect the entire society, not just women,” said Al Gazy bint Muhammad Al Shubaiky, a social researcher.

Speaking about the problems facing poor Saudi women she said, “There were no differences between individuals, because people lived in tight-knit communities. The family setup was like a tribe and people lived with their extended families. This was instrumental in satisfying the needs of less well-off people in family units. But now, families don’t live like they used to. The tribal support that families enjoyed in bygone days has been replaced with government organisations. Unfortunately, destitute people get ignored.”

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