“Mothers are watching their babies die.” Why we must protect Yemen’s children
The BBC’s heartbreaking film on Yemen’s starving babies and children will shock the world. But sadly the situation is only set to get worse.
Yemen has long been one of the poorest countries in the Middle East but conflict, which escalated 18 months ago, has made a bad situation worse.
A hunger crisis
Families have been forced to flee, people have lost their jobs and livelihoods, and food is now so scarce and unaffordable that we are seeing a major hunger crisis.
Hunger has hit babies and children the hardest.
Now, a third of all children under five are acutely malnourished – around 1.3 million youngsters – and with no end to the conflict in sight, these numbers are likely to get worse.
Mothers are watching their babies die
When mothers who are malnourished themselves are no longer able to breastfeed their babies, they have had to resort to alternatives.
Things like plain water or unpasteurised animal milk which can lead babies with especially low immune systems to infection, diarrhoea and – at worst – death.
Serious lack of healthcare
Yemen’s health system is on the edge of collapse.
So even when families can get their poorly children to the few health facilities still functioning, there aren’t enough medical supplies or electricity to run life-saving incubators and other machines.
Ibrahim, 28, told our Yemeni colleagues why his nine-month-old son Ali was starving:
“There is not enough daily food for my children,” he said.
“I take some food like wheat and rice from the grocery and pay after I sell the sheep. My family misses the meat, fruits and vegetables; we do not have money to buy them because we are poor. Ali’s body was so weak and he was always crying, not sleeping and refused to eat any food.
“When one of my family members gets sick I take them to Bajel hospital. There is a health facility just 5km from home but there aren’t many health services available, they focus mostly on vaccinations as in this area there are no qualified doctors.”
How we’re helping
Across Yemen including in Hodeida, where Nawal Al-Maghafi’s powerful BBC film was shot, we’re providing therapeutic feeding programmes, water and sanitation, and healthcare including vaccinations.
But there is only so much NGOs like ours can do. We need the conflict to end to be able to reach every last child.
Alongside preventing children from accessing essential services, the fighting is also threatening the lives of children in other ways.
It’s killed at least 1,162 children and injured 1,723.
Both the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and Houthis and associated opposition forces have been accused of killing and maiming children, as well as attacks on schools and hospitals in violation of international humanitarian law.
What we’re calling for
We’ve been calling on the UK government to back a UN-led independent international mechanism to investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws by all sides in Yemen.
We’ve also been calling for the UK to stop selling arms to any parties to the conflict in Yemen, where there is a risk that they could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international law.
The UK and other members of the UN Human Rights Council are meeting in Geneva now and have a rare opportunity to kick start international, independent investigations into the multiple allegations of violations of international law.
The UK must back this to establish the facts about what is happening on the ground, to ensure accountability of perpetrators and, critically, to send a clear signal to fighting forces that children and their families must be protected.
The UK has a chance to lead the way in Geneva and help better protect children and their families in Yemen. If they fail to do so, Yemen’s children will be condemned to more suffering.
Names changed to protect identity.