YEMEN - THE DESPERATE PLIGHT OF NEARLY 10 MILLION CHILDREN STILL LARGELY IGNORED
Yemen’s leaders hold the future of an entire generation in their hands
By Edward Santiago, Country Director at Save the Children Yemen
The scale of suffering in Yemen is staggering.
Nine months since the escalation of violence began, the protracted bloody conflict has left the Middle East’s poorest, most under-developed country in a state of freefall with 21.2 million people – or 82% of the population - now in need of emergency humanitarian assistance, including close to 10 million children.
Immense damage to civilian infrastructure and disrupted access to even basic services have triggered acute food and fuel shortages across the country, but while a peaceful solution to the conflict remains elusive, the desperate plight of these children continues to go largely unreported and ignored in one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.
The impact of the escalating violence on the lives of Yemen’s children has been nothing short of devastating, resulting in the deaths of over 700 children, the injury of more than 1,100, and leaving millions more painfully hungry with no access to clean water or even the most basic healthcare such as vital life-saving vaccines.
The needs are urgent, and Save the Children provides emergency aid by distributing food and cash and supporting clinics that treat malnourished children. However, we also need to ensure that Yemeni children – the country’s future – are not paying the price for years to come by missing out on their education as well. The rapid escalation of the conflict since March 2015 has resulted in double the number of children not attending school, which currently stands at a staggering two million.
This is a consequence, in part, due to the forced closure of more than 1,500 schools due to insecurity, and the fact that least 174 schools have been totally destroyed by airstrikes and ground attacks since the conflict began, with an additional 611 so badly damaged that they are considered too unsafe for children or teachers to use. By mid-October 2015, an estimated 260 schools were also hosting Internally Displaced People (IDPs), with various armed groups occupying 58 schools, almost all in Taizz.
My child protection team at Save the Children recently spoke to Saleem*, an 11-year-old boy who was forced to flee his home town in northern Yemen as a direct consequence of the conflict, and now lives in a tiny apartment with his mother and three siblings in Sana’a. Saleem spent several months selling eggs on the streets of Sana’a to help his family make ends meet before enrolling in a new school.
He said that he dreams of waking up one day and hearing that the war is over, so that he can finally return to his home town and old school.
He told us: “It was a perfect morning that weekend; we planned to go out with friends to play with my new bike that afternoon but suddenly, we heard massive explosion. I was crying with my brother as house was hit by shrapnel. It is still too dangerous at home - my friend who went back to his house was killed by a missile.
“I have no one here, no friends, and it is difficult to study at school in overcrowded classrooms where they put three grades in the same room.”
Amjad, a 15-year-old who has been displaced with his family to Hajjah Governorate, also describes how all of his dreams have disappeared. He told us: “The war is tracking us wherever we go. At the beginning of 2015 our camp was hit during an airstrike which killed my brother and my best friend. This forced us to move to a new camp where life is very difficult – there is no food, no water or school. We live in torn and old tents and there is no stability in my life, only fear all the time.
“Before the war, I had a dream to finish my education and to be a doctor but now, everything is gone and I have lost all hope. I don’t go to school because I feel scared of the airstrikes that might hit the school while I am there. It is not a safe place anymore. I used to play football but now I do not like anything, I want to stop the war. Within the current situation I see my future is dark.”
Saif, a School Director in Sana’a, explained that the conflict has resulted in an acute shortage of qualified teachers in many areas. Furthermore, those who have remained at their post face spiraling transportation and food costs and are struggling to meet their families’ daily needs themselves.
The estimated one million displaced children in Yemen have also put an additional strain on already meagre education resources in many areas; classes have often significantly increased in size, basic educational supplies like text books and even furniture are scarce and, because many IDP families have had little choice but to seek shelter in public buildings like schools, classroom space is often at a premium.
Rahmah, a teacher in Sana’a for the past five years, describes how many of her pupils are showing clear signs of trauma and distress - such as having nightmares or being afraid of loud noises - as a result of hearing nothing but explosions and gunfire for months on end. She told me that her pupils have, understandably, become more aggressive and sometimes even violent, and that the psychological impact of this level of stress is very likely to have long-term implications.
We at Save the Children strongly call on all parties to the current conflict in Yemen to reach an immediate and permanent ceasefire and embark on a roadmap to a negotiated and inclusive peace agreement.
We are also asking these same parties to protect schools, students, and teachers from attacks, support the return of children to classrooms, and facilitate the return of all school age children back to the classroom. We also encourage the international donor community to do more to fund the desperately under resourced education sector in Yemen.