The children of Yemen: from school to the battlefield

Posted on 2016-11-19 15:28

Hundreds of children have been recruited across Yemen, and thrown into the ongoing civil war.

Child soldiers have been used by a range of militias and Islamic groups, especially amongst the Houthi faction. They have exploited the difficult financial situations of families in order to attract children, and send them to the battlefields in order to expand their forces. Clear evidence has surfaced that the Houthi faction has used their authority to issue identity cards for these children, formally making them into combatants.

The recruitment of children is morally and legally unacceptable; it is also prohibited under international law. Children have been abducted from their families by the Ansar Allah group (Al-Houthi group) and al-Qaeda. This occurs despite the presence of human rights organisations. Despite this, the international community continues to ignore human rights abuses against children in Yemen.

Recruitment into armed combat kills the innocence of childhood, throwing children into the conflict where they become “economically efficient” substitutes for adult fighters. Furthermore, children are the easiest group to influence ideologically, taking advantage of their impressionable youth. Their recklessness and inexperience is used to push them to the most dangerous skirmishes, at the forefront of battles, all whilst they lack any experience and combat skills.This is tantamount to a death sentence. These militias are using child soldiers as a way to save money, exploiting the dire financial situation of the Yemeni people that has been caused by this devastating conflict.

International reports revealed the growing phenomenon of child recruitment by armed groups in Yemen, especially prominent since the beginning of the protest movement and political crunch in the country that resulted from the Arab Spring. One such report recorded the deaths of 159 children, and the injury of 363 others during 2011 alone.
Meanwhile, the Al-Qaeda affiliate "Ansar al-Sharia" continue convincing child recruits that if they die in the fighting, they will go to heaven immediately. These children have been deprived of their right to education by those armed, religious, groups. Clearly, this recruitment has nothing to do with Islam, and throughout the history of Islam it has been stated that children should not participate in warfare.

Many of the children who are 'recruited' have been kidnapped and beaten into submission, while others have joined the Al-Houthi militant group to escape from poverty, in order to protect their community, or out of a desire for revenge. Unemployment, poverty, low social awareness, the closure of large number of schools and the declining standard of education are driving factors for the recruitment of children in Yemen.

Houthi militias have misled children by pretending to take them to attend educational sessions, or deceiving them that their duties would be in civilian facilities, where they will be able to help support their families financially. Instead they are transferred to the battlefront. The poorest families are driven to seek job opportunities for their children despite their young age, and some even ask them to carry arms, as long as they do not become involved within the armed religious groups, as families will rarely accept or consent to that.

Children often take a direct role in the fighting, but can also be assigned to non-combat duties. These can include being assigned to daunting and dangerous supporting roles, where they often carry heavy loads, including ammunition or injured soldiers. Yet more children are used as scouts, messengers, cooks and to carry other routine duties.
The Houthi militias assign children to their frontline forces. The armed groups like al-Qaeda train children to serve their goals through indoctrinating them. Their families send them for a number of reasons, but the most common is poverty; they lack the ability to look after them themselves. These children are trained, often serving military leaders, starting as cleaners at the military headquarters, or working as reconnaissance or transport assistants. Others still are forced into roles as sex workers.

Regardless of which party is behind arming a child, intimidating or enticing them, in doing so they are in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Geneva Conventions. They also violate numerous international protocols, including the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which entered into force in 2002, and also treaties aimed at preventing children from serving in combat.

In 2015, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) monitored a frightening increase in the recruitment and use of child combatants in Yemen. The number of documented cases, from January 2015 until the beginning of December, reached 848 cases of children being recruited, compared to 156 cases monitored in 2014. However, local estimates paint a far darker picture, with a strong possibility that the number is far higher as the majority of child soldiers are recruited in areas that are inaccessible to human rights workers and international advocacy organisations.

According to the latest United Nations reports in Yemen, nearly 1,300 schools have been destroyed in the course of conflict, while a further 3600 schools were closed by the end of the 2015 academic year. This is equivalent to 70% of the total schools in Yemen. As a result, nearly 3 million children have been deprived of their right to education, and nearly five-hundred thousand students prevented from accessing further education because of the war being propagated by the Al-Houthi and Saleh-led militias.

A UNICEF report entitled "Education Under Fire" indicates that the war in Yemen has prompted thousands of children to abandon their books and pencils in order to fight in the ranks of the parties involved in the conflict. The Houthi group, the government armed forces, and the Al-Qaeda affiliate “Ansar al-Sharia” have all been placed on the UNICEF blacklist for the recruitment and exploitation of child soldiers.

The problem of the recruitment of child soldiers in Yemen has reached a tipping point. The international community needs to step up and take responsibility for these children; they are amongst the most vulnerable in society. This problem did not arrive suddenly from nowhere; it existed in the armed forces of former President Saleh’s regime.
The Yemeni President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, issued a directive in late November 2012. It was a Republic wide decision not to recruit children under 18 years of age into the army or security forces. It is more obvious today than ever before that the decision was never implemented.

We would like to thank Basem Alabsi for writing this guest post for Konflictcam. He is a Yemeni Human Rights Activist who works to promote international awareness of human rights abuses taking place within the Yemeni Civil War. He Tweets from @BasemAlabsi.

Sam Lees
Communications Officer & Director