Written By: Haykal Bafana
Article Date: Dec 31, 2012 - 8:50:21 PM
At all hours of the day, a stream of young boys flow up & down the streets of Sanaa. They rummage through the garbage bags, looking for metal cans & plastic bottles to add to the bulging gunny sacks they lug around.
Many are not even in their teens, and some are clad in the olive green uniforms of Yemeni public schools that they are not attending anymore. As night falls, nebulous shadows shuffle along on the street in front of my house -the street is completely dark, as the public streetlights have never worked.
The urban scavengers of Sanaa work through the night, when a conspicuously larger proportion of children take part.
The hoard of junk they find each day is sold for a pittance, but it may mean the difference between a small meal for their family or going to sleep hungry. Blank miens adorn the young faces, for unknown are the joys of childhood to these children of Yemen. Poverty Poverty and hunger are directly linked in Yemen : food supplies are widely available throughout the country, but the spiralling prices of an oligopolistic market put it beyond the means of the ordinary Yemeni family.
With a moribund economy staggering closer to collapse and a political crisis paralyzing the entire country, more families in Yemen are falling into poverty. Truly appalling is the sight I saw of a child’s small figure crouched in the dark rifling through rubbish & eating unearthed scraps of food, spitting out occasionally the morsels exceptionally unpalatable.
Once, I saw a boy chased away by dogs in a contest over the grub of garbage. Hunger is a critical problem for the poor of Yemen, and the children of the poor suffer the worst consequences. Health Poverty in Yemen also contributes to an increasing health tragedy for children.
The cash-strapped government is unable to provide sufficient health facilities for the public. As a result, existing medical facilities are overwhelmed with patients, affecting the standards of care significantly. Despite the subsidized fees at these facilities, the poor face the expense of medicines at market cost, almost of which is imported & expensive. News reports of a child dying merely due to inability to pay for medicines or medical care are frequent & do not create much of a stir any more.
The statistics on children in Yemen are grim : The 2012 Comprehensive Food Security Survey for Yemen by the United Nations World Food Program states that more than 60% of children in Yemen are acutely & chronically malnourished, and that a staggering 10% of children do not live past the age of
5. Education The children who still plod through the education system do not fare much better. Education is accessible in Yemen, even for the poor : no school fees are payable, although money must be found for books & uniforms. Nevertheless, the overall problem is the enervating perception that education neither provides an escape from poverty nor a path to future economic wellbeing.
I grew up in Singapore, where the constant mantra to this day is that education provides a clear path to success - each year, the top university graduates are recruited eagerly by the government and the private sector. In contrast, throughout the course of my professional work in Yemen, I have met directors of large companies & senior officials in the civil service who would face a struggle to gain menial employment in other countries.
In stark contrast, even top university graduates in Yemen are unable to find employment. Once, on behalf of a charity organization, I visited one of the largest schools in Hadhramaut, where I was introduced to the head of the English language department.
The man could barely speak the English language that he was, by vocation, supposed to be teaching to the children. It was explained to me later that the man was the son of a local “dignitary” - as if that explained everything. The system is skewed in Yemen, and it is not the cream that rises to the top.
The children in Yemen thus grow up to believe that education is an unworthy pursuit – they see ample evidence to justify such a tragic view.
They think that success depends on the strings their fathers can pull, which powerful sheikhs he knows or how many armed men he has at his disposal. Study hard, do well in examinations, get a sound education? My 13 year old neighbor Rashid simply asks “What is the point?” - it is difficult to argue with this young man’s cynical wisdom. Early Marriage Many children thus drop out of school prematurely to pursue other avenues.
The phenomenon of child marriage in Yemen was comprehensively documented by Human Rights Watch. More than half of Yemeni girls are married off before the age of 18, and almost 15% get married before they turn 15
A law that fixed 15 as the minimum age of marriage was abolished in 1999. Attempts to legislate a new law fixing 17 as the minimum age of marriage in 2009 failed due to strenuous objections by the Islamist Islah party & influential Islamic clerics, and the issue has been ignored since. Islah party’s assistant secretary general Muhammad Al Saadi (the current Yemeni Minister of Planning & International Cooperation) said that “the marriage age is an Islamic rule, and political parties cannot intervene in such affairs”.
It will stand as one of the ironies of history that Tawakul Karman was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her contribution to women’s rights in Yemen : Karman is a leading Islah party leader. Child Labour Two boys from my neighbourhood in Sanaa disappeared some months ago. Their friends tell me they are now working in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
I doubt they are even 15 years old. Working as menial labour or begging in the streets is increasingly an alternative to attending school, and the trafficking of children to rich Gulf states to do so has become an export industry.
At almost every traffic junction in the capital Sanaa, a swarm of thin children clad in ragged clothes weave barefooted among the vehicles each time the traffic stops. Amid exhaust fumes & blaring horns, the children beg pitifully for handouts, often ignored as they shuffle from car to car.
A few hawk sundry items such as toothpicks, tissues & bottled water. Veiled women clad in long black robes drift from car to car asking for help, cradling piteously thin infants in their arms. As the traffic light turns green, the women & children rush to the roadside, at constant risk of collision as vehicles drive off hurriedly.
Trafficking The trafficking of children is a dark & disturbing aspect of Yemen. Many are smuggled to Saudi Arabia by syndicates, to beg on the streets & perform menial work. Verified reports over the years disclose Yemeni children smuggled to Egypt for human organ harvesting & to Saudi Arabia for sexual exploitation. Internal trafficking of children & women to cities such as Aden & Sanaa is a widening problem.
More than 10,000 Yemeni children are smuggled or trafficked abroad each year. In some cases, the families are complicit with the traffickers and receive a monthly share of their child’s earnings. Economic destitution is credited as the root cause : poor & hungry families in Yemen are forced to set aside morality & religion, for it is depravity that puts food on their tables.
Child Soldiers As if childhood in Yemen was not a tragedy enough, the recruitment of children by armed forces & tribal militias continues. The United Nations Secretary General’s 2011 Report on Children & Armed Conflict says that across the board, Yemeni military & security forces recruit & deploy child soldiers, as do the tribal militias.
The Secretary General also says that due to the protests & armed conflicts of 2011 in Yemen “a total of 159 children (138 boys and 21 girls) were reportedly killed” with a further 363 injured & maimed. 211 attacks were directed at schools, which were looted and used as bases by Yemeni armed forces and tribal militias.
A report by Yemen Times estimates that up to 20% of males involved in armed combat in Yemen are below 18, and many are aged 14 or even younger. No statistics are available to tell us how many child soldiers or child militia members in Yemen have been killed or injured so far in 2012.
In 2010 President Barack Obama waived the application to Yemen of the Child Soldiers Protection Act, an American law which denies US taxpayer funding for militaries which recruit & deploy child soldiers. Ironically, Obama had voted for the CSPA while serving as a US senator in 2008.
The waiver for Yemen was renewed by Obama in October 2011 and October 2012. The leaked Obama administration Memorandum of Justification for the waiver stated that it was “in the national interest of the United States” since cooperation with the Yemeni government is a vital piece of the US strategy to defeat Al Qaeda.
No evidence suggests that Obama even tried to pressure the Yemen authorities to cease the recruitment & use of child soldiers - the US State Department’s June 2012 Human Trafficking Report lamely asked the Yemeni government to “make greater efforts to stop the forcible recruitment of child soldiers”.
In Obama, America has truly found a President without a moral compass - he sacrifices Yemeni children on the altar of US national interest.
The Future What does the future hold for the children of Yemen? In my moments of deepest pessimism, I truly fear that a greater tragedy is unfolding for them.
There appears to be no good news on the horizon for the children of Yemen, as we adults continue our infantile bickering & killing, politicking & rhetoric. But each day, I look at the faces of my children and I feel my heart aching to make a better world for them.
It dawns on me afresh that all over Yemen, there are millions of fathers like me who feel the same about their children. So in this I have faith : no matter how dire the present looks, the people of Yemen will keep striving to build a better country, a better future, and it will be for the sake of our children, the children of Yemen.
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