Catherine Shakdam
Last updated: 25 January, 2012

Children of the Revolution

Much has been written over the past year on the increasingly catastrophic humanitarian situation in Yemen, with agencies such as the UNICEF and the World Food Program warning of another looming famine. But despite aid workers’ best efforts to draw an accurate and sadly grim picture to foreign and local media, in the hope that it would trigger a wave of donations, no words or fancy prose could actually sum up the true horror of the hunger pandemic spreading through Yemen.

Although the country benefits from many natural resources, including oil, gas and abundant fishery reserves as well as a strategic opening onto the Arabian Sea, the state has failed to develop its infrastructures, leaving its people to rot in a state of semi-misery, preferring to favor the rich and powerful and failing to address the needs of an ever-growing population.

Yemen’s popular uprising and the country’s many overlapping conflicts plunged tens of thousands of families below the poverty line, putting hundreds of thousands of children in danger as they now battle with starvation and malnutrition.

Malnutrition and Diseases

With more than half of its population under the age of 18, Yemen runs the risk of facing high levels of malnutrition amongst children.

A recent study conducted by Oxfam, revealed last month that 7.5 million people were going hungry every day, stressing that in some extreme cases, people could go on for days without anything to sustain them, leaving them prone to health issues.

On December 27th, Geert Cappelaere, head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Yemen confirmed in a statement that his agency had recorded dangerous levels of chronic malnutrition in the western province of Hodeida and in the war-torn southern province of Abyan.

Yemen Ministry of Public Health and Population also published a recent statement writing that it had “found a global acute malnutrition (GAM) rate of 31.7 percent” – meaning nearly one third of children surveyed suffered from either moderate or severe acute malnutrition – of which nearly 10 percent were severe cases. These figures are more than double the internationally recognized emergency threshold of 15 percent. The survey also found that nearly 60 percent of children were underweight and 54.5 percent stunted, meaning their height was too low for their age, a sign of longer-term malnutrition.

Due to a flare up in sectarian tensions in the northern province of Sa’ada and resurgence in al-Qaeda’s activities in the southern province of Abyan, thousands of families were forced to flee their homes, finding refuge in caves, run-down warehouses and make-shift camps.

Often without potable water, access to electricity or even access to sanitation, thousands of families have been under great strains for well over six months now, with medical staff warning of the health hazards looming.

“Children are often prone to dysentery and other water-borne diseases. Unfortunately there is very little we can do since we are always short on medicine and medical supply,’ said Ameenah, a nurse in Aden.

Child Abuse

But all through this crisis it is the reports of child abuse that are most unnerving and worrying.

Since most Yemeni families saw their source of income swept away by the revolutionary wind, many rural communities resorted to marrying their daughters at a very early age, hoping to discharge themselves from the responsibility of feeding another mouth and hoping that the girl dowry would bring them some financial respite. This “trade” is dangerously becoming a trend as Yemen is sinking further into poverty.

Yemen’s child brides have often been in the news over the past few years, as shocking cases of abuse and violence surfaced in local media. Today, Yemen is selling its youth to the highest bidder.

And if girls are used as cattle, boys are being sent to war; the young arms of a forever more demanding machine of war in a race for power.

Both the regime and the opposition have been accused by child rights activists of using under-age soldiers to beef up the ranks of their soldiers.

Teenagers as young as 15, were seen in the streets of Sana’a, the capital, wearing the Republican Guards red beret, proudly brandishing their shiny new gun as they manned the capital’s many checkpoints.

Sheikh Sadeek al-Ahmar, one of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s most virulent detractors and a fierce opponent, followed suit as he sent his young recruits to the front line.

Residents of Hasaba, the Sheikh’s stronghold, said the “boys are meat for their cannons, they don’t even know what they’re doing…all they think about is the $120 they will send back to their family at the end of the month.”

One can only hope that foreign aids will soon come flowing to Yemen and that guns will fall silent, allowing the sound of laughing children to once again fill the air of the country that was once known as “Arabia Felix”.