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85,000: That is the estimated number of children under the age of 5 who have died of starvation during three and a half years of war in Yemen, according to an emergency appeal by Save the Children. When they are not being starved or bombed, they have barely any access to health and education. It is a lost generation that renders the future of Yemen uncertain.
In war, regardless of the conflict, the most vulnerable are women and children. On Peace Insight’s website, communications specialist Tadzie Madzima-Bosha explained in 2013 that “throughout history, we can see examples of terrible abuses against women and children; from the 1.1 million children killed during the Holocaust to the many women and children raped or killed during the Rwandan Genocide.”
On Open Democracy, researcher Joanna Rozpedowski wrote that “humanitarian NGOs estimate that, during the last ten years, an estimated 10 million children have been killed as a result of armed conflicts, while the young survivors have been left traumatized, exploited, wounded, mutilated or disabled. Separation from parents and the extended family makes children vulnerable to the trauma of sexual victimization, antipersonnel mines, and cluster bomb maiming, in addition to their involuntary enlistment as child soldiers or imprisonment and forced labor. A lack of access to healthcare, basic sanitation, and education also has irreversible and detrimental lifetime consequences.”
Yemen has served as the stage of a war between a coalition of powerful regional countries led by Saudi Arabia on one hand, and Houthi forces on the other; the latter having seized a large part of the country, including the capital of Sana. The conflict has pitted coalition airstrikes against militias operating on the ground, with civilians in the middle facing what international organizations call “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” and children bearing the brunt of the consequences.
“If left unchecked, this crisis will claim the lives of many more children,” Bhanu Bhatnagar, spokesperson for Save the Children UK, told Fanack. “Currently, 400,000 children under the age of five are suffering from severe acute malnutrition in Yemen and are essentially spending each day fighting to survive. One child dying of starvation is a tragedy; 85,000 dying of preventable hunger is a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. And for every child that dies of hunger in Yemen, there are many more struggling to survive the relentless violence, economic collapse, and decimation of all basic services. What we know is that children’s lives are becoming exponentially harder as time drags on and that we’re barrelling towards ‘a great big famine’’ engulfing the country. Without urgent attention and action, many of Yemen’s children simply won’t survive to see 2019.”
13-month-old Nusair is among the children suffering from severe acute malnutrition who are being closely monitored by Save the Children. Treated in August, his health had deteriorated again by October; he and his mother had been forced to relocate to a remote area due to increased fighting near their home and were unable to make the long trip to the hospital. His mother, Suad, told the organization, “I can’t sleep. It is torture; I am worried about my children. I couldn’t live if any harm came to them.”
Starvation is not the only jeopardy to children’s lives in Yemen: their homes and schools are shelled daily. “Children are paying the heaviest price for this crisis and are the most likely to die from conditions created by this war,” Bhatnagar said. “Every day they’re going hungry and thirsty and suffering from easily preventable diseases such as cholera and diphtheria. Cases of Severe Acute Malnutrition in children have more than doubled during the war, with 400,000 suspected cases this year compared to 160,000 before the conflict. Lack of fuel and difficulty accessing medical facilities, plus the lack of medical supplies and power outages, mean children are dying of treatable diseases. We’ve met parents who have lost children to something as simple to treat as tonsillitis. Children have also been forced to endure a terrifying routine of intense airstrikes and violence; many of them have been killed or maimed in the fighting or have lost their loved ones, homes, and schools. Human rights violations and abuses continue unabated, with at least 6,600 children killed or injured in what the United Nations (UN) describes as an “entirely man-made catastrophe.”
Even before the war, many children were already victims of child labor and kept out of schools. In 2013, a study conducted by the ILO, the Social Development Fund, and UNICEF revealed that more than 1.3 million children in Yemen were involved in child labor. According to UNICEF, in the last 30 years, coverage and enrolment have increased remarkably, but Yemen is still among the countries with the lowest gross enrolment ratio. In 2015, it was estimated that some 1.2 million primary school-age children were out of school (30 percent), along with 402,284 lower-secondary-age children (22 percent). A further 401,544 pre-primary school-age children are also out of school (92 percent).
A UN report published in 2017 observed 1,702 cases of recruitment of children for use in hostilities 0. The report stated: “The Popular Committees affiliated with the Houthis and the army units loyal to former President Abdullah Saleh (the Houthi/Saleh forces) were responsible for some 67 percent [of these cases] …UN Human Rights monitors frequently observed children as young as 10, who were armed and uniformed, manning checkpoints. The Houthi/Saleh forces were also found to be responsible for widespread arbitrary or unlawful detentions.” 13-year-old Younis told CNN about his experience as a child soldier and his leg injury: “I saw the people beside me get killed. They would get a bullet (in the head) or in the chest. I was very scared. When the projectile hit me, I thought I was dying. I was overcome by fear and anxiety. Even now, I still feel the same way.”
The situation has only worsened since the war began, as Bhatnagar explained to Fanack. “Teachers’ salaries are either insufficient or not being paid at all and schools have reduced teaching hours or had to close. Together with chronic insecurity issues, this means that some parents are less likely to send their children to school. Being out of school is particularly problematic in a war zone, where schools can provide safe and protective spaces for children as well as some stability amidst the turmoil.” Despite the Safe Schools Declaration, which was signed by the government and aims to promote and protect the right to education during armed conflict, children are instead forced to work mostly in agriculture and the service industry in order to sustain their families, according to the United States Bureau Of International Labour Affairs.
The immediate cessation of the conflict would be one way to help children in Yemen; however, that is unlikely to happen soon enough for many of them, despite the ceasefire that was agreed upon by Yemen’s foreign minister Khaled al Yamani and rebel negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam during peace talks in Sweden on 13 December 2018, which included allowing access to the port of Hodeida, through which about 80% of the country’s imports flow. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said during the occasion that “the UN will play a leading role in [the] port and facilitate aid access for the civilian population.” The next round of talks will take place at the end of January 2019.
But more broadly, the situation of Yemeni children is still catastrophic. “When I asked a colleague what their hope for the future was, she answered, “the only hope most Yemenis can dare to have is for a tomorrow if they survive the night,” Bhatnagar said. “Save the Children is also concerned about the psychological impact the violence is having on children as it is likely to have long-term implications, especially if left untreated. The majority of the country’s population is under the age of 25 and education is the only way to avoid losing a whole generation to the effects of war. Children are the future of Yemen and without adequate education, they will not be able to rebuild their country.”