Poverty drives recruitment of child soldiers in Yemen

Poverty drives recruitment of child soldiers in Yemen
Comment: Yemen's children will continue to be exploited as long as there is no economic alternative for their families, writes Khalid Al-Karimi.
5 min read
06 Mar, 2017
Joining a militia can help a child have enough food [AFP]

The numbers of child soldiers in Yemen has grown alarmingly as the civil war drives both sides to seek further recruits. The conflict has legitimised the illegal war in the Arab world's most impoverished country.  

Reports have repeatedly highlighted the plight of malnourished and famished children in the country. Sadly, this humanitarian crisis gives rise to multifaceted troubles. It begets further perils and crises. One stark example is the rise of child soldiers.

As the war drags on, children have been used to fuel the conflict. They are lured into joining the battlefields out of need for money or as a result of intentional deceptive persuasion and exploitation at the hands of warring rivals.

The parties to the conflict propagate their fighting ideas among children who feel aimless, as schools are no longer their daily destination. The war has disrupted education in the country, wreaking havoc on the lives of children across the land.

Since March 2015, at least 1,500 child soldiers have been documented by Amnesty International. This may not be the full figure. It could be just a fraction of the true number of child soldiers nationwide. Reports regarding child soldiers in Yemen unveil only the tip of the iceberg. Previous reports revealed that a third of Yemen's fighters in the civil war are children.

Child soldiers are not confined to joining the bloody front lines. Children are also used to staff check points, transport ammunitions or food for the fighters - or perform espionage and any other tasks associated with warfare.

Several groups are fighting in Yemen. These groups intentionally resort to attracting children to the battlefields. According to Amnesty International, the Houthi militants, Al-Qaeda, pro-government militias and numerous divisions of government armed forces have all been capitalising on children's innocence, deploying them for military purposes.

Seeking martyrdom or money?  

Child soldiers of Yemen go to the battlefields with two things in mind: money and paradise. Several families know that their children have been fighting in some parts of the country.

Some children look for income to provide for their families. Other children believe that they will go to heaven if they get killed in battle.

The pursuit of income is stronger than the pursuit for paradise

Some believe the fight is a religious duty, expecting a sublime reward from God. It is theological exploitation which functions as a very strong motivation to keep these children firm on frontlines - whatever the dangers may be.

However, the pursuit of income is stronger than the pursuit for paradise. The people in Yemen have been on the brink of famine, and work opportunities are of extreme scarcity. The predominant flourishing business is war.

The warring parties do not fight while broke. They have money to spend on those seriously wanting to be on the front lines. When child soldiers join the war, the families remain waiting for one of two phone calls.

One is the son's call, telling his parents he will send them his salary. The other is the call taht tells them their son has "become a martyr". Not all families greet such news alike. Some wail nonstop, feeling the pain of a child lost. Other families express pride that their children are "martyrs". Both cases are heartbreaking.

Poverty boosts terrorism

Zaid Al-Aliya of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen, has said many hungry children have no option but to join terrorist groups - a way to help them survive death by hunger.

"We have terrible figures about 14 million Yemenis suffering from malnutrition and seven million not knowing when they will able to eat again," Al-Aliya said.

This is unquestionably worrying. Children become terrorists, and penury is a driving force behind this catastrophe. Terror suspects have not only capitalised on the lax security in Yemen. They have also exploited poor children for serving the jihadists' agendas.

The upsurge of Islamic State group militants and Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen would not have happened if the country was armed with established security and a healthy economy. However, some children are fed up with their living conditions, searching for any opportunity to guarantee a livelihood.

Terrorism is known to be promoted by radical ideologies. These ideologies need people in order to come alive in practice. Therefore, locating recruits in poor societies becomes an easy mission. This is why extremists in Yemen have grown into a stronger base.

The UN's faltering efforts

Child recruitment and use in armed conflicts is not a recent phenomenon. When the regime of former President Ali Saleh waged a war on Saada's Houthi militias in 2004, both warring sides recruited children to partake in the battle.

The war lasted six years, deepening the vulnerability of child recruits in the country.  

When the uprising broke out in 2011, the old military divides resurfaced and a new wave of child conscription commenced. Pro-regime forces and anti-regime military units competed to recruit further fighters. However, struggle over power was defused by power transfer in 2012.

In 2014, the United Nations signed an action plan with the interim government of Yemen at the time to put a curb on child recruitment in the military. The action plan aimed to reintegrate conscripted children in society.

The UN's action plan did not go beyond the words written on a page

Unfortunately, Yemen witnessed a military escalation and the collapse of peace talks in late 2014. The UN's action plan did not go beyond the words written on a page.

The issue has been further complicated, seeing the rampant poverty and the continuing deterioration of the country's ailing economy. The end of this tragedy is not coming soon. The demise of child soldiering is linked only to the end of the civil war.  

Yemen's children will continue to suffer. Some are wrongly happy with this suffering, deeming it their duty to fight for God's sake. Others are being forced to opt for the front lines in hope of survival against starvation, or evading the feeling of humiliation when asking people for something to eat.

The warring sides in the country do not heed the gravity of this crisis. Fortunately, the UN does take note. But can the UN aid Yemen's children effectively in this bleak time?


Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sanaa-based Yemeni Media Center and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter for the Yemen Times newspaper. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Khalidkarimi205

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.