Yemen’s young workers: A growing problem

National Yemen

The number of children working in Yemen’s streets has dramatically risen in recent years. (Photo by Luke Somers)

By: Asma Al-Mohattwari

There can be no denying the importance of children’s well-being – a more significant factor in a nation’s future would be hard to identify. Yet here in Yemen, the child labor issue represents a serious problem for communities, and for children themselves. The past several years have seen the phenomenon spike, and there are indications that the widespread child labor in Yemen won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Estimates of the number of children actively working in Yemen vary considerably. However, statistics have clearly indicated that the number of working children in Yemen has only increased over the years and up until the present time. In 1997, Rädda Barnen (Save the Children Sweeden) concluded that no less than 400,000 children were working in Yemen.

The Yemeni Central Statistical Organization (CSO) has reported that 12 percent of Yemeni children between the ages of 6 and 14 were working in 1999, amounting to 700,000 children. Only six years later, the Ministry of Social Affairs’ Child Labor Unit estimated that the number of child laborers in Yemen had risen to a million.

According to a study released by CHF International in August 2010, 5 million children were then working in Yemen. Compounding the situation, three out of every five children don’t have access to education. The CHF study focused on children from 7 to 13 years of age.

Economic concerns are often the cause behind children taking to the streets to make money. Dalia Mohammed, a child of 9 years, lives with and works alongside her father, sister and brother, cleaning cars on Al-Rowaishan Street. In the morning, Dalia also cleans the house and prepares food. In the afternoon, she goes to Al-Moatsem School along with her brother and sister.

Instead of returning to their home after school, Dalia and her siblings go to clean cars, with their father often chewing qat under a tree adjoining the sidewalk.  What bothers Dalia most is when the police arrive and arrest all the children working in a particular location in order to extract release money from their relatives.

“Sometimes we end up being jailed for two weeks, till my father comes and pays them 30,000. I was so sad because I wasn’t able to go to school for two weeks,” she said.  “I wish I could stay at home, but who would give us our school allowance?” she asked.

Mohammed Naji is 11 years old and studies at Al-Zubairi School. He and his brother work on Hadda Street in front of Al-Kumaim shopping mall; Ahmed sells perfume and his brother sells balloons.

He goes to school in the early morning and finishes at 1 pm, when he has lunch and does his homework. He then works from 3 to 8 PM.

“My mother always argues my father to let me be at home and allow me to study – and I wish for this – but my father refuses. I will study well to be a company owner in the future,” he concluded.

Though it is recognized that 2002’s Yemeni Law No. 45 on Children’s Rights requires the state to take necessary measures to aid children suffering from difficult living circumstances – such as street children, homeless children, and children who are exposed to abuse, exploited or lured into performing illegal acts – still, the number of street children only continues to increase.

Although at present many NGOs in Yemen deal with children’s care issues, there have been little to no engagement in this area, and there are certainly no positive, visible results to speak of.

Ahmed Al-Qurshi, Manager of the Seyaj Organization for Children’s Protection, said that unfortunately civil society organizations continue to be weak and incapable of dealing with the problem. It doesn’t help that many NGOs are perceived by citizens to be working for political ends.

“Most of the NGOs mismanage the financial support they receive from donors; they use it to invest in businesses which are far removed from the real aims which caused the money to come in the first place,” said Al-Qurshi.

Al-Qurshi emphasized that the child labor problem cannot be solved by any one organization or government institution. In his opinion, families, government and civil society should all participate and fulfill their obligations to children.

“The government is primarily responsible for dealing with child labor – not just one side, but rather with cooperation from all, such as the Ministry of Human Rights, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, the Interior Ministry,” he said.

Al-Qurshi said that in reality, though, the government had abandoned its responsibility and come to rely on civil society organizations and donors to tackle the problem.

“As an example, we find officials and people with responsibilities buying a newspaper, tissues or water from children who work in the street. Others children may clean or repair their cars. But no one asks why they are there, or wonder why we haven’t stopped this phenomenon.”