The conflict between Houthi rebels and the Yemen government has forced an estimated one-third of the population in the northwestern region of Sa’ada – the centre of the fighting – to flee their homes; in the mayhem, children have become separated from their families, recruited, detained, injured or killed in the clashes, and the survivors continue to bear those scars, according to the development agency Save the Children.
“Children from Sa’ada suffer from a variety of psychosocial effects from the trauma of conflict. This ranges from having witnessed violence directly to having to flee the safe environments of their homes and start a new life in a different and sometimes hostile setting,” said Andrew Moore, Save the Children’s country director in Yemen.
“The support systems that children rely upon most, such as families, schools and communities, may deteriorate and fail to provide their basic survival, protective and psychosocial needs. These fluid situations can have an enormous impact on children’s immediate and long-term development and age- and gender-appropriate functioning,” he said.
A study by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in August found that 28 percent of children had seen someone being killed or wounded through conflict. One in 10 displaced children had been injured as a direct result of the fighting from both sides and experienced “high levels of psychosocial stress”. Half the children interviewed had depressive symptoms and 30 percent were said to have suffered a “loss of hope”.
One symptom of psychosocial distress is an increased propensity towards violent and destructive forms of behaviour, according to Charlotta Land, a child protection expert at UNICEF.
“For many of Sa’ada’s children, violence has been the focus of their entire lives; they have witnessed fighting in Sa’ada and many face violence in their homes”; 68 percent of children interviewed in August said they had been subjected to domestic violence.
There is also a fear that a protracted conflict could radicalize future generations of young Yemenis.
“An important section of children and young people are at risk of becoming more extremist because of what they’ve had to undergo,” said Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF representative in Yemen.
“You nurture a generation which is more violent, and which has stronger negative feelings and hatred vis-à-vis authority.”
Some children are now part of the conflict itself. More than 15 percent of the fighters from Al-Houthi and tribal militias are children below 18 years of age, according to an inter-agency child protection assessment released in August 2010.
“It is abundantly clear that all parties, the Houthis and the government-sympathetic tribes, are using child soldiers,” said Cappelaere.
The conflict stretches back to 2004: the Houthi-led Shia rebels are demanding autonomy for the Zaydi Shiite population in the north, a response they say to their perceived marginalization, and in protest over the influence of the United States and Saudi Arabia on government policy.
Gaps in support
Limited humanitarian access to the most war-affected areas (such as Harf Soufyian district in Amran, and Razeh, Sheda and Haydan districts in Sa’ada governorate) where children’s environments have been destroyed or contaminated with land mines, has undermined children’s ability to access quality education and healthcare, said Fatma al-Ajel, communications and advocacy officer at Save the Children.
“Only one-third of boys in war-affected areas went to school last year and this rate is much lower among girls.”
“The psychosocial situation for children in north Yemen is similar to that of children in Gaza, regarding exposure to traumatic events and limited access to basic services and developmental-friendly environments,” said Land.
“There is a gap in psychosocial support for those suffering severe trauma. For example, there are no psychosocial doctors in Sa’ada. This means that severely traumatized children have to be sent to Sana’a for treatment,” said Moore. “It is important that services are brought to the children and not the children to the service.”
Child friendly spaces
As the sun sets on a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Amran city, about 80 children are playing in the dust, surrounded by grey tents. Scruffy-looking boys kick at a flat football, while girls sit in the dirt, building Lego and drawing in colouring books.
“These are what we call child friendly spaces,” said Al-Ajel, pointing to the cordoned-off area behind her. “They’re a place where kids can escape from it all.”
Such areas provide children with a protected environment where they can participate in organized activities to play, socialize, learn, and express themselves as they rebuild their lives.
UNICEF is managing emergency child protection interventions in Sa’ada, Amran and Hajja war-affected governorates. In Amran there are five, in Sa’ada 10 and in Hajja two, said Sveinn Gudmarsson, a communication officer at UNICEF.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]