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Fathi al-Hashidi, eight, struggles to fix a tyre where he works in a vehicle repair workshop in the capital Sana'a.
Fathi al-Hashidi, eight, struggles to fix a tyre where he works in a vehicle repair workshop in the capital Sana'a.

Yemen's children forgo books for tools

From repair shops to farms, labourers as young as eight are put to work, but a US programme tries to get them back in school.

SANA'A // Fathi Khaled al Hashidi, eight, spends 16 hours a day working in a vehicle repair workshop in the capital Sana'a. "I work from eight o'clock in the morning until midnight throughout the week except Thursdays and Fridays. Sometimes I get 500 rials (Dh9) [a day] and sometimes I don't if there is no work," Fathi said, stumbling as his small body tried to lift a heavy jack. Fathi said he did not face any danger in his job, which he started four months ago, but his cousin, Anwar, 13, lost one of his eyes while working in a welding shop. According to a 2001 government survey, the number of children working in Yemen is 421,000. The survey revealed 52 per cent of child labourers were girls and 48 per cent boys, aged between 10 and 14. However, Muna Salem, the director of the child labour unit at the ministry of social affairs and labour, said the real figure was much higher. "I believe this figure is not accurate because working children change their workplaces every now and then. During summer holidays, the number of working children increases as some finish school and go to work. Some children work with their parents and are not included in such surveys," Ms Salem said. She said her ministry will carry a nationwide survey in April or May. Child workers in Yemen - where half of the 22 million people are children and 43 per cent of the population lives on less than US$2 (Dh7.3) a day - work as street vendors, in restaurants, bus stations and factories, at construction sites and in vehicle repair workshops. A large number also work in agriculture, Ms Salem said, where the chemicals with which they work can damage the nervous system, putting the children at risk of diseases, skin inflammation, stomach problems and epilepsy. Ms Salem said a lack of awareness about the dangers of child labour was contributing to an increase in the practice. "There is not enough awareness of the hazards working children face, particularly those working in workshops and farms using pesticides and chemicals," she said. "Some children working in fishing sometimes spend nights at sea away from their families and some even die. Some working children undergo sexual abuse. Some even become aggressive towards the society." A high level of school dropouts and truancy - the results of an unwelcoming schooling environment, aggressive teachers, poor facilities and overcrowded classes - were also behind the rise in child labour, Ms Salem said. According to the ministry of education's comprehensive school survey for 2006, 46 per cent of Yemen's 7.4 million primary school children do not attend classes. In order to address the worst forms of child labour, a new US-funded programme, Alternatives to Combat Child Labour through Education and Sustainable Services, was launched last month in four of Yemen's 21 governorates. "This new programme will target the worst forms of child labour in Aden, Hajja, Hodiedah and Taiz governorates. These governorates were selected because of the high incidence of child labour, mainly in agriculture and fishing as well as urban-based jobs. Hajja was mainly selected because of the high occurrence of child trafficking to Saudi Arabia through and from Hajja," said Kunera Moore, the programme's director. The three-year programme is funded by the US department of labour at a cost of $3 million and will be implemented by the US-based Co-operative Housing Foundation (CHF) and the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, a local non-governmental organisation. "We will withdraw 4,100 children from the worst forms of child labour by removing them from their work or transferring them into acceptable forms of work for children. In addition, we will work with 3,000 children who are at risk of entering the worst forms of child labour, because of their family circumstances," Ms Moore said. "Some children are used in smuggling of flour, khat [a mildly narcotic leaf] or animals across the border with Saudi Arabia and sometimes they are abused sexually. Others are being trafficked to work or beg in Saudi Arabia." The government has been asked to expand the programme to cover all of Yemen. The CHF started working on child labour in 2004 and has managed to get 2,800 children back to formal education, literacy classes or vocational training. Yemen's children rights law sets the working age at 14 and limits the time at work to six hours with an hour break. For eight-year-old Fathi, the law means nothing as he has to work to support his family and his desire to go to school seems a distant dream. He moved from his home village, Hashid, with his eight-member family to Sana'a following a dispute with his uncle. As a result of his father's psychological problems, he had to quit school and work. "I would like to go back to school, he said. "I don't want to work." malqadhi@thenational.ae

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