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While the grown-ups play their war games, the children of Yemen suffer the most

April 16, 2015 at 10:35 am

According to UNICEF, it is estimated that one third of children in Yemen have been recruited as child fighters since the beginning of the coalition air strikes targeted ostensibly against Houthi rebels. It’s no doubt that as Yemen draws itself further into this dangerous cross between a civil and proxy war, the situation for its children will become ever more dangerous.

The use of children is regarded as an important strategy in such conflicts because they are a tactical advantage, particularly the little ones; their size makes them easy to fit into cramped places, they’re generally faster runners and their moral compasses are easy to influence. Although, in the current context of Yemen, fighting has become a means to survive, it is also a means to win peace for a better future.

After the 2011 revolution that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, recruitment into one side or the other of the armed conflict became somewhat of a career choice for many, as the already poverty-stricken country became even poorer. For many parents, the education of their children is not even on the agenda as their main priority is survival; this means that the country which is already missing a stable bourgeoisie will find itself spiralling down further into chaos. Yemen imports 90 per cent of its food, and such essential goods will become more difficult to transport as infrastructure in the country deteriorates as a result of the conflict; thus, more children will be trapped by the fighting. While the grown-ups play their war games, it is the children of Yemen who suffer the most.

When looking at economic development statistics and child welfare, it’s clear that Yemen was already adding to its national instability, but this has risen dramatically in light of the recent conflict. The poverty rate, for example, increased from 42 per cent in 2009 to almost 55 per cent in 2012 and the latest statistics show that 45 per cent of the Yemeni population is currently food insecure. Yemen’s oil economy is becoming even more problematic, not only because dependency on oil is increasing while oil reserves are almost fully drained, but the lack of central governance in Yemen also means that the limited oil supplies are more likely to be smuggled on the black market to sustain the economic status many non-state actors at war. In this case, conflicts over resources will be extremely likely between the many factions, further destabilising the most resourceful pockets of Yemen and continuing to demolish the vital infrastructure that prevents civilians from being stranded in their own homes. With Yemen’s youthful population and conflict spreading in the most densely populated areas such as Sana’a, more children will feel compelled — or will be forced — to participate in armed conflict as a means to survive.

Child marriage, a practice that is extremely common in Yemen, is also more likely to increase. UNICEF claims that 32.3 per cent of children under the age of 18 are married. In many cases, girls are sold off as brides to help the family to survive. Not only does this alleviate the “burden” of having to provide for daughters when they can hardly afford it, but the family also receives the traditional bridal dowry (mehr), which is commonly given in the form of a lump-sum (although Islam dictates that it is to be given to the bride herself). This not only has a psychological impact on children; it can also have devastating physical effects. Last year, the news surfaced of an 8 year old girl dying after she was raped on her wedding night; her reproductive organs were simply unable to cope with intercourse at that age. This was not a one-off example. Girls are also at risk of female genital mutation (FGM); 45 per cent of females between 15-45 years of age in Yemen support the practice which, if it does not kill them, will have a severe impact on their health. As the conflict in Yemen intensifies, the likely fate of girls will become bleaker, not least because it is a well-known fact that sexual assaults and rapes increase in number in war time. Sexual abuse has become a prominent weapon in armed conflicts worldwide.

As the fragile social structure of Yemen deteriorates, so do its prospects for recovery. As child security in the state was already below acceptable levels before the latest outbreak of violence, the lack of a stable social and institutional core means that children are left to fend themselves in any way that their innocence deems to be logical within an extremely hostile environment. Internal displacement, food scarcity and the psychosocial implications of being trapped in conflict have the potential to create a lost generation if a solution to the Yemeni question is not found and implemented soon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.