x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Children are paying the price of a fractured Yemen

Faced with soaring food prices and rampant unemployment, families take their children out of school and put them to work as street hawkers.

Hamas Hajiri, 8, and her sister Yasmin, 10, sell tissues to passing drivers at the Safia traffic junction in Sanaa’s city centre.
Hamas Hajiri, 8, and her sister Yasmin, 10, sell tissues to passing drivers at the Safia traffic junction in Sanaa’s city centre.

Faced with soaring food prices and rampant unemployment, families take their children out of school and put them to work as street hawkers. Hugh Naylor, Foreign Correspondent, reports

SANAA // Like the scores of other children washing windshields or peddling bottled water in these congested streets, Yasmin Hajiri beams with enthusiasm when asked what she wants to be when she grows up.

"A doctor!" the 10-year-old exclaims amid a din of honking car horns and shouting people.

But when the subject turns to the classroom, Yasmin frowns.

Her mother yanked her out of school three months ago to help the family scratch out a living, hawking tissue paper. water and chewing gum on the Safia intersection in Sanaa, the capital of one of the poorest countries in the Arab world.

She doesn't know if she will ever go back to school.

Working nine exhausting hours a day for little money and little food is an existence far removed from her school days.

"I miss my friends," Yasmin said, just before darting through traffic in a floral-patterned headscarf, topped by a blue baseball cap.

"I even miss my teachers."

Yasmin's situation is not unique here.

Yemen is wracked by rebellions, tribal divisions, graft and trying to recover from a year-long uprising against its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, that badly hit an already wrecked economy.

Mr Saleh has stepped down under a Gulf nations-brokered peace plan, handing power to his deputy, Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, who will be formally elected president tomorrow in an uncontested vote under the terms of the deal.

Aid agencies say it is the children who are suffering the most in a country overflowing with the young. The average age is 18.

The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) estimates close to a quarter of Yemen's youth under the ages of 18 are involved in some form of child labour leaving school to find jobs. But most just end up working the streets.

"I can't emphasise enough how badly the situation has deteriorated for children over the last year," said Unicef's spokesman in Yemen, Mohammed Al Asaadi, who added the figure for child labour is likely much worse than Unicef's estimates.

The impact of the revolution and broader violence has tripled food prices and caused shortages of fuel and cooking oil. Putting food on the table is becoming ever harder.

Political instability and chronic electricity blackouts have forced companies shut and caused waves of layoffs in an economy already rife with unemployment. Exacerbating this is the soaring cost of living. Yemen's central bank put inflation at almost 17 per cent last May.

Hundreds of thousands of Yemen's 26 million people lost their jobs over the past year, government officials said. Some put the unemployment rate as high as 50 per cent.

Yemen's economy shrank five per cent last year, according to the government.

About 58 per cent of children under the age of five suffer stunting in terms of weight, height and cognitive development because of chronic malnutrition, Unicef says.

Polio is getting worse. At least 74 children have died from measles over the last year

"The humanitarian surveys of malnutrition rates are two times the emergency threshold, putting millions of lives at risk," said Richard Stanforth, a regional policy officer Oxfam, saying Yemen is as bad as Somalia.

Yet he and others say international aid is not enough - it may actually be falling.

Just over half the US$290 million (Dh1 billion) of donations pledged to the UN-administered Humanitarian Response Plan were delivered last year. The programme gives food to needy families.

Many aid organisations, such as the UN's the World Food Programme, have suspended operations because of violence and graft. Several aid workers have been kidnapped over the past year.

"While Somalia receives hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, donors are pinching their pocketbooks when it comes to Yemen," Mr Stanforth said.

In downtown Sanaa, the problems are easy to see in the number of street children elbowing for room to spit-shine car windows or sell trinkets and sundries.

Rashid Adaad, 15, started selling candles in Sanaa's Old City last year. After dropping out of school, he now works 12-hour days, giving whatever he can earn to his family.

"All I want to do is help my family," he said.

That is also why 12-year-old Ahmed Shahadi began working in his uncle's traditional jewellery shop in the Old City last year. He can earn as much as US$10 a day for his brothers and sisters, even if he is only allowed to keep about a dollar or two for himself.

But it can be exhausting work.

His bus commute to and from the shop takes one hour each way, leaving him about six for sleep. When he does make it to class, which is less often these days, he is usually too tired to concentrate.

"It's even harder when we work overtime here," said Ahmed.

Yemen's military and militias and Houthi separatist rebels are soaking up the growing number of desperate children, said Ahmed Al Qershi, president of Yemen's Siyaj Organisation for Children's Rights.

Dozens of schools throughout the country are occupied by various fighting forces, keeping children out of school and making it easier for them to be recruited. Some are as young as 12.

"In 2011 alone, at least 2,000 children enlisted in fighting forces," Mr Qershi said.

Back at Sanaa's Safia intersection, Yasmin's mother, Um Hajiri, 30, complained of worsening cash and food shortages after the anti-Saleh uprising erupted violently last year.

She has had to make all six of her children go to work.

That includes Yasmin's eight-year-old sister, Hamas, who sells bottled water. And her youngest sister, one-year-old Aloul, who lies sleeping in their father's arms in the middle of the intersection as they beg.

Mrs Hajiri said she had no choice.

"At best, we eat a tomato and bread for breakfast and lunch each," she said.

"Do you think I want to see Yasmin and my children do this kind of work?

"Of course not! I want them to learn, to be smart, have an education.

"But we need to eat."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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