Yemen is not an easy place to be a child. It is one of the poorest countries on earth, with more than half the population living below the poverty line. Now, heavy fighting in the north has forced approximately 150,000 people“may of them children”to flee their homes and seek refuge in camps or with host families. In addition, deep-rooted traditions mean that it is not uncommon for young girls to be married off to much older men. In Yemen, UNICEF is working to be both an advocate and a lifeline for children.
|© Naseem-Ur-Rehman/UNICEF Yemen/September 2009|
Women and children collect water from one of the 20 water tanks provided by UNICEF in the newly established camp at Al-Mazrak in Northern Yemen.
First: the fighting. Clashes between the Yemeni government and Shiite separatists have been simmering for five years in the country’s north. But the last month has seen a massive increase in fighting. And”as is so common in these types of conflicts”civilians are caught in the middle. In camps located outside the main zone of fighting, UNICEF is providing water, sanitation and basic hygiene assistance. On September 4, we shipped 3.5 tons of medical and nutritional supplies from UNICEF’s main supply warehouse in Copenhagen to Yemen. The shipment included ready-to-use therapeutic and oral rehydration salts to prevent diarrheal dehydration. Other emergency supplies”including water filters, jerry cans, blankets and soap”have also been distributed.
But thousands of the displaced are still trapped by fighting in areas too unsafe for humanitarian assistance. And recently, a government airstrike aimed at the militants killed dozens of civilian refugees. Now, too, the Yemeni school year is scheduled to begin on October 4, and there are an estimated 50,000 school-aged children among the displaced population. UNICEF is preparing temporary learning spaces for children in the camps. But this effort will reach only a small fraction of the number of children in need.
|© UNICEF/NYHQ2007-1644/Giacomo Pirozzi|
A girl writes on the blackboard at a local primary school in Hodeidah Governorate, Yemen. Girls are often the last to start school and the first to leave, as their education is undermined by economic pressures and social discrimination. UNICEF supports the school with books, learning materials and other supplies.
More bad news out of Yemen: the recent death of a 12-year-old girl, Fawziya Youssef. She had been married to a man twice her age and died after two agonizing days trying to give birth (her baby also passed away). UNICEF has condemned the practice of child marriage in Yemen and other countries where it remains an issue. But deep-seated tradition can be difficult to change. A recent study in Yemen revealed that the average age of marriage in very rural villages is around 12 or 13 (!).
Still, there are many remarkable signs that attitudes are shifting. Earlier this year, 10 year-old Nojoud Ali became a worldwide hero when she went to court to seek a divorce from her 30-year-old husband. The court granted her freedom and now she’s back in school, planning to become a lawyer some day. UNICEF is working with both the Yemeni government and community leaders to stop child marriage through both legislation and education. In addition, we’ve trained some 200 rural journalists on issues that often go unreported, such as child marriage, maternal mortality, girls’ education and trafficking of children. This is exactly the sort of innovative approach to problems that always impresses me about UNICEF.
Children in Yemen have it rough these days. It’s good to know UNICEF working to get them both the emergency and social help they so badly need.