Rise of the Yemeni child soldier
LONDON - One of the most disturbing aspects of the on-going conflict in Yemen has been the spike in the recruitment of children to fight for the Houthi rebels.
Children believed to be as young as 7 have been spotted around Sana’a guarding checkpoints and carrying assault rifles. Humanitarian groups estimate that children fighting for the Houthis and other armed groups make up around one-third of all fighters in Yemen.
In September 2014, Iran-allied Houthis took control of Sana’a and advanced across the country to the southern port of Aden, resulting in UN-recognised President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi fleeing to Saudi Arabia.
This led to a Saudi-led coalition made up of mostly Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members intervening in Yemen’s civil war in an effort to curb Houthi advances and restore Hadi to power.
However, as the fighting intensified, dozens of child fighters are thought to have been killed, according to the Washington Post. Additionally, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) claims that from March 26th and April 24th, armed groups recruited at least 140 children.
Child soldiers have been a fixture of the Houthi movement since 2004. The use of child soldiers in Yemen increased due the number of battles between the government and the Houthis.
In 2012, the Iranian-allied group’s leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, met UN special representatives and pledged to stop the recruitment of child soldiers, a pledge that is yet to materialise.
In May 2014, the Yemeni government and the United Nations signed an agreement to stop recruiting child soldiers by the country’s armed forces. However, with the escalation of hostilities and continuous fighting between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, that plan was never fully implemented and is currently on hold.
According to human rights activists, there are a number of factors behind this sad phenomenon, some of which are a product of Yemeni society and culture, while other factors are tied to the country’s perpetually poor economic situation.
In an interview with The Arab Weekly, Matthew Taleshi, UNICEF’s child protection coordinator for Yemen, said there are three driving factors behind the use of child soldiers in Yemen: poverty, local perceptions of masculinity and the values imparted on to the child by the community on the importance of defending one’s tribe, community, beliefs, religious and ethnic identity.
Regarding poverty, Taleshi told The Arab Weekly, “Joining the [government] armed forces ensures a salary, food and the possibility of having a career with the army and, thus, some parents even forge documents to alter the age of the child, rendering them eligible for enrolment.”
However, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, children fighting for the Houthis were paid in food and qat, a popular leafy narcotic in Yemen.
As to masculinity, Taleshi pointed out that it is valued for a child in some tribes and regions of Yemen to bear a weapon after a certain age. “Carrying a gun signals transition into adulthood and manhood. A child that is defending the tribal, ethno-religious identity and religion is held in high esteem in some communities,” he said.
This, according to Taleshi, is closely linked to the concept of defending one’s beliefs and identity. Tribes and communities and ethno-religious groups are concerned about self-preservation and survival. As such, the child who contributes to protecting these identities is encouraged and his behaviour is valued.
“This factor is, of course, very strong in the current climate of sectarian and ethno-religious and tribal division and, with the instability that has ensued after the 2011 uprising, there is greater fear and apprehension among feuding tribes and factions for survival and asserting of their identities,” Taleshi said.
Unfortunately, there are no quick short-term solutions that can remedy this problem, especially with the on-going war.
According to Taleshi, what is needed are long-term communication and behaviour-change programmes targeting parents, children and communities on the negative effects of child use and recruitment on children and their rights. Additionally, armed forces should be trained on child protection principles and children’s rights, since many are unaware that they are in violation of the child’s rights.
Other steps to help fix the problem include working on coming to a common ground on the “age of the child” and punishment for those using children as fighters.
Finally, “strengthening child protection and social work systems to help detect such cases in the community and to raise awareness at community levels of the adverse effects of recruitment and to help case management of those who are already recruited and affected,” he added.