Childhood and Displacement in Yemen’s Protracted Crisis

Aziz Khaled
Protection and Inclusion Technical Specialist, Child and Youth Protection Organization

Aslı Saban
Independent Social Worker and Civil Society Practitioner


Introduction: Displaced Children in Yemen

Yemen remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and aid operation. The crisis is the result of a brutal armed conflict that has escalated since 2015, and destroyed the economy and vital infrastructure. According to the OCHA, 20.7 million people are in need, 12.1 million people in acute need, and 4 million people are displaced. Yemen has the fourth-highest level of internal displacement in the world. More than 4 million people have been displaced since 2015, including 172,000 who fled their homes in 2020. Most internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Yemen have been displaced for more than two years, and often multiple times, straining their resources, and exacerbating vulnerabilities. Conflict remains the overwhelming cause of displacement, although natural disasters, in particular floods, also displaced significant numbers of people each year.

Yemen remains the poorest country of the Middle East; nearly one in two residents are living below the poverty line. People in Yemen are faced with malnutrition,  little-to-no access to healthcare services, and an overall lack of protection programs and security. Women and children composed 75 percent of the displaced population in Yemen. Child heads of households are left with the difficult responsibility of caring for their family members, which often puts them at increased risk of exploitation and abuse, GBV, separation, trafficking, recruitment as well as psychological distress. Yemen is the most difficult place in the world to be a child. Schools, hospitals and other places where children are not safe are targeted in horrific attacks. As humanitarian organizations have reported, Food and sexual violence are used as weapons of war also in Yemen.

In addition to IDPs, many migrants from East Africa, specifically Somalia and Ethiopia, who are searching for opportunities in Saudi Arabia have to cross the Red Sea into Yemen and travel north to the border. This requires a complex network of smugglers to organize travel, and get them entry into the Saudi Arabian border. Approximately 138,000 people, mostly Ethiopians, crossed the Red Sea in 2019. However, those numbers were reduced in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many unaccompanied and separated migrant children from east African countries have traveled alone through human traffickers to Yemen to seek jobs in Middle East countries. Unaccompanied and separated children have been subjected sexual abuse, detention for money, imprisoment, military recruitment by Yemeni government oppositions, physical abuse, starvation, emotional challenges.

Early and Forced Marriage

Yemen has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. In Yemen, child marriage is often used as a way to seek protection from host communities, and to relieve financial burdens. The common definition of child marriage in Yemen is marriage under age 15, and no laws have been endorsed to bring the age bracket to 18. Honor killing remains common in Yemen. Young girls have been murdered, threatened, or harassed - with no legal actions being taken to this date as a result.

Women and girls in Yemen have severely limited rights when entering or attempting to leave a marriage. A recent study exploring the impact of humanitarian situations on child marriage in the region showed that more than 30% of young girls are married before the age of 18, as well as that 1 in 5 IDP girls aged between 10 and 19 are married, compared to 1 in 8 girls in host communities, with 16 being the average age of marriage. In many cases, this has led to maternal and child health conditions. It is estimated that approximately 1 in 10 married girls have lost their baby, demonstrating the health consequences of child marriage coupled with insufficient health services, especially reproductive health (RH). Though Child marriage is a grave violation, in Yemen, it is a traditional practice and one that is not generally viewed as violent or harmful. According to Oxfam, incidences of violence against women, including forced marriage, are rarely if ever reported to local authorities. In Yemen, displaced girls, especially those with longer exposure to conflict, have the highest risk of child marriage compared to boy and host girl counterparts. Economic instability is a primary factor in marriage decision-making but has a complex relationship with the effects of displacement on employment.

Child Labor

In Yemen, children are subjected to the worst forms of child labor. They generally are forced to work in guarding of qat, a mild narcotic legal plant - or in associated agricultural work. Children  are exposed to pesticides and carry weapons which are used to protect the qat crops. Children also work in stone cutting and quarries, construction, auto shops, fishing, garbage collection, domestic service, restaurant motels, and in the streets. Children are subjected to exploitation by gangs and exposure to habits such as smoking and chewing qat. Child Labour is commonly caused by financial insecurity within the family, which in turn prevents children from enrolling in school. An estimated two million children, 20% of school-aged children, are out of school, leaving them at a heightened risk of child labour and forced recruitment - a prevalent trend impacting a large number of boys under the age of 18. In 2017, 842 cases of the recruitment of boys as young as 11 years old were verified, in addition to 552 children killed and 764 maimed.

Child Sexual Exploitation

Rates of child trafficking are high in Yemen. Often enough, for families that put their children in the trafficking networks prior to the conflict, Yemen was a transit point and destination for women and children, primarily from the Horn of Africa. These women and children were exploited in sex trafficking and forced labor. Children from the from Ethiopia and Somalia are also forced into commercial sexual exploitation in Yemen. More recently, there has been an increase in child sexual exploitation through certain practices such as child pornography and tourist marriage. Furthermore, other children see an abominable fate in the trafficking of organ transplants. Children are internally trafficked to Aden and Sana’a for forced labor, domestic service, begging, street vending, and to work as unskilled laborers. Girls are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. Somali girls are trafficked to Yemen for commercial sex work. Yemeni children are also reportedly trafficked to Saudi Arabia where they are engaged in forced labor and forced prostitution. Amnesty International has documented cases of sexual violence. Rape and sexual assault committed in the context of an armed conflict are war crimes. Commanders who fail to stop such heinous acts can themselves be responsible for war crimes.

Concluding Remarks

Child protection and child rights-focused responses remain severely constrained in Yemen, mostly due to funding gaps and restricted humanitarian access. Although the provision of specialized protection services and support with livelihood activities to children and their caregivers have proven to reduce protection risks, the lack of funding has led to a significant decrease in these interventions. Children encounter limited physical access, social and cultural barriers while attempting to access services. The absence of robust national child protection systems exposes children to serious risks, and hampers the realization of their rights. International humanitarian organizations are currently implementing a multi-sector response and seeking to scale up where possible. The key of child protection interventions remain: (1) prevention and response to grave violations of children’s rights by parties to the conflict; (2) strengthening of community-based structures for the care and protection of vulnerable children, and (3) supporting vulnerable children to access basic education in safer schools.

Lastly, securing lasting change in children’s lives hinges on effective advocacy, lobbying and campaigning. This advocacy work can only have a lasting and meaningful impact, and take that impact to scale, through persuading and inspiring governments and other institutions with power and resources to change their own policies and practices. Academicians and civil society organizations should focus on more  case studies, advocacy and research activities in the areas of child protection and gender empowerment in order to make visible the urgent needs in Yemen.