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Yemen's Children Pay High Price for Conflict

The health and well being of Yemen’s children is at greater risk than ever before. Conflicts rage throughout the country. On March 8, UNICEF stated that the violent protests now taking place in Yemen are affecting children’s well being, who should be protected at all costs. UNICEF also said that a number of schools in al-Mansoura and al-Mu’alla districts in the Aden governorate were being attacked by demonstrators and putting children’s lives at risk.

The seven-year-long war in Northern Yemen has produced a generation of children who have grown up in violence. It is estimated that children make 60 percent of the roughly 300,000 people who have been displaced and had to flee their homes in terror. As a result of this, many children bear the scars of war which have manifested in a variety of psychological symptoms and have threatened their proper development.

Because of the situation of abject poverty, many children are trafficked to Saudi Arabia, often with the support of their parents who are promised a bright future for their children by intermediaries. They end up, in many cases, being abused and some fall prey to adults who involve them in prostitution, drug-trafficking and other illicit activities. Some escape and return to Yemen only to become “street children” in the country’s main cities and where many continue a cycle of abuse and lawlessness. A UNICEF study showed that there are more than 30,000 street children in Yemen.

The phenomenon of street children in Yemen can be traced back to the 1990s, when the economic situation in the country deteriorated. Today, the number of street children is rapidly increasing and includes children of other governorates who came to live in Sanaa city, children from poor families living there and children from refugee families coming mainly from Somalia.

Although the rights of children are enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Yemen is a signatory, the situation of the children in Yemen is shameful, according to the Director of the Democratic School for Human Rights, Mr.Jamal al-Shami. According to Mr. al-Shami, children are exposed to violence in homes, in schools and on the streets, and about 60 percent among them are exposed to torture in prisons.

Due to lack of economic resources and poverty in their families children often work in difficult and dangerous jobs and may end up exploited by gangs and subject to abuse. “The ministry has carried out a number of projects dealing with child labor, and it is preparing a project to monitor the worst forms of child labor in a number of Yemeni governorates,” said Mona Ali Salem, chairwoman of the Child Labor Unit in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour.

The situation for Yemeni girls is worse than for boys in almost all social indicators. Poverty and lack of awareness has discouraged many poor parents from having their children, particularly girls, educated. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) approximately 52 percent of girls attend primary school, compared to 86 percent of boys. In rural areas, where 72 percent of Yemen’s population lives, fewer than one in three girls go to school. Despite some recent improvements in enrollment, education statistics in Yemen are among the worst in the Arab world.

Violence throughout the country affects everybody, including children, who grow up in an atmosphere of danger and lawlessness. In Yemen, there are three times as many guns as there are people, and boys learn to carry out an AK-47 from an early age. Five hundred to six hundred children are killed or wounded every year through direct involvement in tribal combat in the country, according to some estimates.

Disruptions caused by conflict have a negative impact on children and youngster’s health, education and well being. As Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s Yemen representative stated, “Ignoring the plight of Yemeni youngsters who are short of food, education and security is not only cruel but dangerous.”

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César Chelala

César Chelala

Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a
winner of several journalism awards.

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