Civil Society

Child Labor, Fear, and the Loss of a Generation in Yemen

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

“Any country, any society which does not care for its children is no nation at all.” Nelson Mandela

Readers are well aware of the extent of the suffering of children in Yemen in terms of health, education and security. What is also a cause for concern is the upsurge in the number of children on the streets since the war broke out, following the stormy transition in which the country’s infrastructure collapsed. In addition, child labor is on the increase; in 2013, Yemen’s child labor population reached 600,000, compared to 2 million in 2018.

According to UNICEF’s March 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Situation Report, an estimated 11.3 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance, 1 million children are internally displaced, and 4.1 million children are in need of educational assistance.

Children on Yemeni streets hope to get small amounts of money for playing music or singing, selling handkerchiefs and juices and wiping windshields, all with a smile. They are exposed to harassment, violence and extortion. Many factors caused by the war, such as poverty and fear, have prevented them from living peacefully and safely with their families. It is truly tragic that they do not go to school or parks but experience the brutality of working in the streets for fear of going hungry or being beaten by their despondent fathers, who are living a miserable life in a country torn apart by conflict and poverty.

Bashar the musician, and the stories of other children

Bashar is a 15-year-old musician who plays drums and the trumpet in the streets of Sana’a to earn a living. Instead of real instruments, he uses barrels and empty plastic containers he finds in bins. He tells us how proud he is that his deceased uncle taught him the art of rhythm when they used to collect plastic bottles together, to sell them and feed their family. To Bashar, music is his life and the source of his livelihood. He loves to see the joy of people around him when he plays upbeat African music on his drums.

Photo Courtesy of Rahman Taha

He is a gifted child who does not go to school but plays the drums at his door. People come with their cameras to watch him play, swaying their bodies and clapping their hands to the beat of his drums, and sometimes even singing along. His dream is to become a professional drummer. Our dream is for him to leave the streets and go to school to complete his education. We would also like to see him join a music academy to further refine his talent, so that one day he can become the ‘best drummer’, like Ginger Baker, Mike Portnoy, Lars Ulrich (Metallica), John Bonham and other world famous artists.

Twelve-year-old Rahaf is a wise and clever little girl who amazes you with her answers that reveal her sense of responsibility and resilience. She hails from a family that was slightly above the poverty line, before circumstances led her to sell handkerchiefs. “I told my mother that I was tired, that I wanted to go to school and that my father needed to understand that,” Rahaf says. “Isn’t it enough that at my age I work to help my father cover the cost of living? He is unemployed and gets angry if I do not bring back money.” Rahaf and her family are now part of the zero income segment. Her father can no longer work as he injured his leg during one of the raids on Jabal Nuqm. All that Rahaf knows is that she is a child who wants to sleep early because she is exhausted after wandering the streets with her handkerchiefs all day long. She complains about not going to school, unaware that it is actually a crime against her. Rahaf is a young girl who dreams of becoming a doctor, and more specifically a dentist, because she says that most people make fun of her worn down teeth. In fact, the raids on Jabal Nuqm terrorized her so much that caused her lack of immunity. The last thing Rahaf said to me was, “Watch my money while I go to the toilet. They refuse to let me go to the toilet here, but since you and I became friends, they welcome me and call me the little doctor.”

Photo Courtesy of Rahman Taha

Saber, an eleven-year-old boy with a big heart, used to knock at our door and ask us if we had any work for him. When I smiled at him, he was surprised then smiled back quickly before we struck up a conversation. The municipality where his father worked no longer paid his wages. He would come back from work and head to the street to wipe car windshields. Saber wanted to help his dad because he loved him dearly. When they could no longer afford to put food on the table, Saber decided to ask for work in homes and to sell the juice he made at the entrance of the university next to his house. When he no longer had money to buy the juice that he mixed with water and sold to passersby, he would gather empty water bottles from the street and carry them on his back in a huge bag to sell them by weight. For each kilo he sold, he got 1000 Yemeni Riyals, and he would sometimes keep looking for bottles until all hours. Even though going to school was no longer part of this young boy’s life, he knew it was his salvation. “I will go back to school soon, after I make sure my father and my siblings are doing alright.”

14-year-old Nuriya stopped going to school after her father’s death in the Taiz war, and she and her remaining family members were displaced to a temporary house in Atan, Sana’a, which consists of one room and one bathroom. She lives there with seven members of her family (including children and women). Nuriya is now the man of the house. She leaves home in the morning to wipe windshields with a piece of cloth and a bottle of soap. She runs everywhere to collect 10,000 Riyals throughout the month to pay the rent. The owner has threatened to kick them out if there is one dime missing. Nuriya stands under the blazing sun on the busy sidewalks to look for cars and buses to clean while she says nice words to drivers. Sometimes, she stays silent and does not extend her hand. She merely wipes the windshield until the owner of a car feels embarrassed and gives her money, although they often repeatedly asked her not to clean their cars. After traffic peak hour ends, Nuriya goes to collect food from nearby houses. I saw her once sitting on the ground with her hand on her head with a large bag of food and a larger black bag next to her. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “I’m just tired”, and smiled.

Nuriya wanted to become a teacher when she grew up, but this young girl has become a lesson in hardship.

Such is the issue of children on the streets – a cruel way to describe innocent children. It is a huge issue that affects Yemen’s civilization, morals and future. In order to deal with it, society must move quickly, even in the absence of a state. Community leaders can provide humanitarian initiatives to help affected families and get their children out of the streets. In parallel to terrible poverty rates in Yemen, there are huge sums of money available. With these funds, philanthropists can establish sustainable projects for the employment and sponsorship of families. Although some international organizations are tending to children in the streets of Yemen, there is still very little awareness about this serious issue, both locally and internationally. It is a matter that requires the vigilance of opinion leaders, journalists and intellectuals in Yemeni society.

Photo Courtesy of Rahman Taha

Sarah Sari, a filmmaker, writer, director, trainer in several fields and a photo journalist. She participates on providing free education in Cinema and psychological empowerment since 2016. She has screened her films in multiple festivals, where her latest film, which was about Yemen’s War, was screened in Brazil

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