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How Yemen's civil war drives child labour and abuse

March 18, 2023
topic:Child rights
tags:#Yemen, #child labour, #children's rights, #sexual abuse, #Yemen civil war
by:Haitham Alqaoud
As thousands of Yemeni children are being sexually abused and badly injured at the workplace, activists push for effective monitoring mechanisms.

Omar (an alias), 15, vividly remembers being homeless in the streets of Hodeida, Yemen's main port city on the Red Sea, looking for anyone who might take him in until he located his family.

After two weeks of living alone in the streets of the capital Sana’a, Omar became an easy target for an employer in Hodeida who was hunting for vulnerable children separated from their parents by the country’s longstanding war.

Omar was forced to meet with the employer and his friends who sexually abused him on a regular basis.

"I was told that if I didn’t agree to meet with them and tried to escape or tell anyone, I would be killed," Omar told FairPlanet. "[He] beat me once when I refused to have sex with him and his friends."

Omar would be taken to the market by his employer on a daily basis to assist him in selling qat, a mildly narcotic leaf popular in Yemen. His employer would sit beside him and deal directly with the customers. This was done to prevent Omar from moving around or talking to anyone.

Two years have passed since Omar escaped from Hodeida back to Sana'a with help he received from a local policeman. The officer had traced his parents and reunited Omar with his mother and father more than a month later.

But to this day, Omar cannot put behind him the horror of being held captive and continuously abused by three people, including his employer. "I'm traumatised because of this incident," he said. "There are no support centres for children like me."

Unfortunately, Omar's story is not unique.

The ongoing war in Yemen has led to an increase in several forms of violence against children, including exploitation, physical abuse, child labour, forced recruitment, domestic and gender-based violence and child marriage.

UNICEF recorded more than 8,526 violations against children between 2019 and 2020, including denial of humanitarian access, the killing and maiming of children and the recruitment of children in the conflict. More than 3,500 of these children had suffered more than one form of violation.

In addition to being sexually abused by predatory employers, children living in rural areas in Yemen are vulnerable to forced labour practices in the agricultural sector.

Child employment in agriculture is considered hazardous as children are exposed to pesticides, heavy agricultural machinery, and physical stress. Many of them are forced to cultivate qat.

Data from a pre-war survey about child labour in Yemen compiled by the country's Central Statistics Organization, the International Labor Organization and UNICEF shows that 1.6 million, or 21 percent, of children between the ages of 5 and 17 in Yemen are employed.

A survey carried out by Yemen's Central Bureau of Statistics indicated that 50.7 percent of child labourers perform dangerous work, and that the overwhelming majority (95.6 percent) work in hazardous careers. It further found that the majority of children (57.4 percent) are employed in the agricultural sector.

How many cases go unreported?

Omar, who has been reunited with his parents in Sana'a, said he originally took the job in Hodeida at the recommendation of a friend who was employed at the same workplace, and shared that he was initially lured by the offer of good pay and a brighter future.

"I felt really regretful that I didn't consult my father on that job, which I thought was a big opportunity for me rather than washing cars with no benefit," Omar said.

Omar is one of the thousands of children in Yemen who are sexually abused at the workplace, according to child welfare experts. And as many families in Yemen don’t report these incidents out of fear that they would bring shame on the family, the real figures are expected to be higher than the ones currently available.

"Because of the conflict, many children are unable to report the violations they are exposed to, due to the poor economic situation which forces them to keep silent and continue working," Mona Alban, Head of the Child Labor Control Unit at Yemen's Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, told FairPlanet.

"If the conflict in Yemen continues, we can expect that a rising number of children will be abused in the workplace," she added.

Hazardous jobs 

In Yemen, it is not unusual to see boys working as car mechanics, butchers, qat sellers or in metal workshops surrounded by dangerous equipment - performing jobs their growing bodies are unfit to endure.

Children are therefore more susceptible to work-related injuries and illnesses than adults doing the same kind of work.

Additionally, children’s brains are still developing, which makes it harder for them to accurately assess and manage the risks involved in the labour they are forced to carry out. As a result, a significant portion of children engaged in child labour are affected by workplace hazards.

In 2013, Yemen’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor issued a policy that outlined a list of 38 hazardous jobs children should not be allowed to perform, including mining, electrical jobs, chemical production, mechanical jobs and spraying pesticides. However, children in the country continue to be forced into these types of jobs.

And although Yemen is a signatory to the International Labor Organization Convention 1999 on the worst forms of child labour, the country was the last to implement the convention's goal of eliminating the worst forms of child labour - which it eventually did in 2016. 

Out-of-school children at increased risk

Mansour (an alias) is a 16-year-old boy from Ibb governorate. He told FairPlanet that he would love to complete his education and realise his ambition of becoming a neurologist. Before he was injured at work, Mansour used to go to school, meet his friends regularly and loved to study.

But Mansour had injured his spine while working for a blacksmith in February 2019, and has been unable to walk since. Nor has he been able to go back to school or "live a normal life."

"I cannot forget the moment my spine was injured," he said. "I was working normally and suddenly the tank on the roof of the second floor fell down and hit my back - mostly affecting my back marrow. I spent three continuous months in the hospital unable to stand."

"Four years ago my dad passed away," he added. "He was very supportive and cared for me. However, my mother now supports me wherever I go."

Omar from Sana'a has also missed out on school because of his family’s economic situation. He was advised by his father to work and earn money instead of going to school in order to help support the family.

At 15, Omar has already worked as a gas station attendant, a car washer and a qat seller.

"Children out of school face increased risks of all forms of exploitation, including being forced to join the fighting [in Yemen as child soldiers], child labor and early marriage," Sara Beysolow Nyanti, a UNICEF representative in Yemen, stated.

According to UNICEF, the war in Yemen has pushed over 2 million children out of school, thus jeopardising their futures, and put another 3.7 million at risk of missing school due to the perpetual withholding of teachers' salaries.

Two-thirds of Yemen's teaching workforce - over 170,000 teachers - have not received a regular salary for seven years.

Who is responsible? 

Yemen's civil war, which began on 26 March, 2015 and has brought on the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, has just entered its eighth year.

The war has devastated the country's infrastructure and targeted vital industries - thus damaging businesses, causing the loss of thousands of jobs and leaving millions of families in an ongoing struggle for survival.

Unable to access education and living in financially insecure households, children in Yemen have found themselves being forced into the labour market.

And as Yemen's labour laws do not stipulate explicit sentences for companies that employ children under the legal age, the constant stream of children entering the labour market has continued to flow unabated.

All the while, children injured at work are rarely supported by their employers. Mansour's mother, for instance, had to pay for all of his medical care and checkups following his accident because his employer had refused to cover any medical expenses, and had never visited him at the hospital.

Good-hearted individuals in the community who heard about Mansour’s plight helped shoulder some of the costs, while others offered to pay for a wheelchair, food and physical therapy sessions.

Speaking to FairPlanet, Alban from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor said: "Other government sectors, such as the Ministry of Education, need to rebuild destroyed schools, prevent children from dropping out of education, reduce violence among schools and amend the curriculum."

"The Ministry of Health also has a role in obligating the owners of agricultural pesticide companies to prevent children from spraying agricultural pesticides," she added. "The Ministry of Information, too, has a significant role to play to spread awareness about the problems of child labour and exploitation."

In March 2019, a report entitled Child Labor in the Arab Region, compiled by the League of Arab States and the Arab Council for Childhood and Development with the supervision of the International Labor Organization, noted that children in some parts of the Arab world are "increasingly drawn into the worst forms of child labor and exposed to exploitation, abuse, and physical and psychological harm."

The report warned that Sudan and Yemen recorded the highest rates of child labour in the Arab region (19.2 percent and 34.8 percent, respectively).

FairPlanet spoke to Ibtihal Al-Komani, a Sana'a-based lawyer and human rights activist, about the country’s legal obligations to children's welfare and how the law can stop these forms of violence against them.

"It's time to stop the violations in the fields of work, and activate monitoring mechanisms by human rights groups," Al-Komani said. "Those organisations need to fully support children in order to protect them and prevent children from engaging in dangerous work that may cause loss of life."

"The government must also work to form a joint committee represented by members of society and NGOs," she added. "These groups should prepare reports and submit them in a confidential manner as documentation of cases showing rights violations, and submit them to the judicial authorities to issue sanctions to employers as stated in the law."

Dozens of NGOs have developed children rights-response programmes in Yemen, and have been carrying out extensive interventions in order to ease their suffering and promote their wellbeing.

UNICEF, for instance, reached more than 254,000 children and caregivers in conflict-affected areas in Yemen and provided psychosocial support. Nearly 1.5 million households received emergency cash transfers every quarter from the UN agency, which benefitted roughly nine million people.

War Child UK, a UK-based NGO, has also been operating in Yemen for several years and engages directly with children, providing interventions designed to keep them safe.

Speaking to FairPlanet, a spokesperson for War Child UK said: "Despite the massive number of children who have been going daily to the market to get a job due to the collapsing of the national economy, child marriages - which may be used as a protection mechanism or to address economic difficulties - came out as the most predominant child protection issue."

"I wish my father could get a job opportunity with good payment so I could go to school and stop working," Omar said, speaking about the future. "But who would offer us this? It is impossible during war time."

Image by Kate_griffin13.

Article written by:
DSC_0126 copy
Haitham Alqaoud
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Omar was forced to meet with the employer and his friends who sexually abused him on a regular basis.
Embed from Getty Images
UNICEF recorded more than 8,526 violations against children between 2019 and 2020, including denial of humanitarian access, the killing and maiming of children and the recruitment of children in the conflict.
Embed from Getty Images
"It's time to stop the violations in the fields of work, and activate monitoring mechanisms by human rights groups."