The Forgotten Children of Yemen

By Divij Jain ’21

A Yemeni child (Photo Credit: UNICEF)
A Yemeni child (Photo Credit: UNICEF)

In October 2018, the New York Times published a story about the effects of Yemen’s Civil War on the country’s children. The story included several unsettling images of children left on the brink of starvation due to the lack of resources available in Yemen. After posting photographs of emaciated children, the Times released their rationale for publishing the photos: “This is our job as journalists: to bear witness, to give voice to those who are otherwise abandoned, victimized and forgotten.”


These photos revealed to many the true horrors that so many Yemenis and their children were facing. A year and a half later, a pandemic hit the war-torn nation in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.


The war in Yemen dates back to 2014, when the Houthi movement, led by Iranian-backed Shi’ite rebels, took control of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. Due to the long-standing differences between the Sunni and Shi’ite sects of Islam, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign against the Houthis in March 2015. Five years later, there is still no end to the war in sight as Saudi Arabia continues to launch attacks on Houthi-controlled territory—including hospitals, essential ports, and schools—in western Yemen.


Civilians, especially children, have been hit the hardest by the ongoing conflict, which has cut off their access to necessary resources such as food and water. Saudi forces have led countless airstrikes in Houthi-controlled territory, the most densely populated region of Yemen. These airstrikes have left thousands of civilians homeless, injured, and dead. In 2017, the largest cholera outbreak in the world began to tear through the country. A lack of access to clean water and acceptable sanitation only exacerbated the spread of the disease: one million cholera cases were reported by December 2017. Extreme poverty caused by the death of family members has led to the treatment of girls and young women as commodities. Thousands of Yemeni girls are married off for financial purposes—according to VICE News, two-thirds of Yemeni women are married before they turn eighteen.


The crisis in Yemen gained more public awareness towards the end of 2017 and through 2018 through more extensive media coverage. 1.8 million children in Yemen were reported to be malnourished in 2018, and Save the Children estimated that 85,000 children had died of starvation. Three days after the death of Amal Hussain, the emaciated 7-year-old who featured on the cover of the Times less than a week before, the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Geert Cappelaere, gave a powerful speech to the press.


“Yemen, colleagues, is today a living hell for children,” Cappelaere remarked. “A living hell not for 50-60 percent of children. It is a living hell for every single boy and girl in Yemen.”

Cappelaere explained that Amal was, unfortunately, one of the 30,000 children who die of malnutrition each year in Yemen. He continued with another shocking statistic: “In Yemen today, every 10 minutes, a child is dying from diseases that can be easily prevented.” After elaborating about the scarcity of water in Yemen, the lack of access to nutritious food, and the lasting effects of the cholera epidemic, Cappelaere pledged that UNICEF would continue doing whatever they could and pleaded for the generosity of the international community.


Despite the increased awareness of the crisis in the public sphere, the situation for children in Yemen has not improved: according to UNICEF, two million children were suffering from acute malnutrition in March 2020. Two million school-age children were out of school. To put that number in perspective, fewer than 100,000 children were out of school in the United States in 2017, even though the U.S. has ten times the population of Yemen. When it seemed like the United Nations-declared worst humanitarian crisis in the world was at its worst, the coronavirus arrived in Yemen.


Yemen was far from prepared to handle the arrival of COVID-19. The country’s medical resources have been depleted from a cholera outbreak only a few years prior. Only half the hospitals are fully functional, and in the entire country, there are only 1,000 ventilators and ICU beds. The blockade created by Saudi forces and supplied by the United States Navy makes it almost impossible for Yemen to import the medical equipment to handle the virus. There have been few lockdown regulations imposed on the citizens of Yemen. People still have to go out and do their jobs to make money and be able to afford food. Current estimates say that 55% of the population will contract COVID-19, and 42,000 people will die from the virus.


Due to the rapid nature by which COVID-19 is spreading throughout the country, the goal in Yemen is to contain the virus. However, containment is not a simple task. Yemen serves as a route through which refugees fleeing from countries in the Horn of Africa travel to safer countries in the Middle East and beyond. Hundreds of refugees are briefly scanned at checkpoints before spending time in designated quarantine areas.


Once again, children are being severely impacted, this time by the effects of coronavirus. An additional 5 million children are out of school due to closures across the country, bringing the total number of children in Yemen out of school to 7 million. The impact that violence, diseases, starvation, and lack of access to education is not only having detrimental effects on children today, but it will also likely have long-term effects on the country as a whole once these children grow up and lead the country.


“I truly hope that the world doesn’t need more cover pages of children like Amal,” Cappelaere said in his speech two years ago. And yet, the world seems to have forgotten about the children of Yemen.