Recruitment of children as actual or auxiliary soldiers in Yemen’s ongoing war is one of the most dire developments in the conflict since its initial eruption in 2014. Driven to the frontlines by the machinations of invested leaders, financial need, tribal solidarity, and other reasons, children have paid a heavy price, one that will continue to accrue for years to come and will affect all of Yemeni society. Aside from it being a war crime under international law, using Yemen’s children as fuel for a seemingly endless war will deprive them and their country of the chance to build both a modern economy that can guarantee a decent standard of living and a sovereign state that can safeguard the rights of its people.
All Parties Recruit Children
Walking down any street of Yemen’s capital city, Sanaa, which is controlled by the Houthi insurgent group (officially known as Ansar Allah), one quickly notices posters and photos pasted on walls and advertising stands that show the group’s child soldiers who were killed in the conflict, all dressed in military uniform. The Houthi armed group has recruited and utilized thousands of children in the fighting, and indeed, all parties to the conflict in Yemen have recruited children. According to the Annual Report of the UN Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict released in July 2022, children in Yemen have been recruited by the internationally recognized government of Yemen (IRGY), pro-government militias, the Houthis, unidentified perpetrators, the Security Belt Forces, and the so-called Islamic State. UNICEF reported at the end of last year that the UN has verified that 3,995 children (both boys and, to a lesser extent, girls) have been recruited since 2015. And the report admits that actual numbers are likely much higher.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported in 2017 that the majority of the reports it has received of child recruitment were committed by the Popular Committees affiliated with the Houthis. Local Yemeni human rights group, SAM for Rights and Liberties, together with Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, reported in 2021 that data it has gathered shows that the Houthi group alone has recruited 10,333 children since 2014. Despite the decline in active fighting following a series of truces last year, and despite the Houthis’ pledge to the UN in April to end child recruitment, the group continues to recruit children.
Children who act as combatants in armed groups, militias, and even government forces typically engage in warfare in a variety of ways, including fighting, spying, laying mines, and working at security checkpoints.
Recruitment of children under the age of 18 is a direct violation of existing Yemeni legislation, including the Juvenile Welfare Act established in 1992 and the Rights of the Child Act established in 2002. And recruitment of children under 15 is defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court. Regardless, children who act as combatants in armed groups, militias, and even government forces typically engage in warfare in a variety of ways, including fighting, spying, laying mines, and working at security checkpoints.
Using Children as Fodder for War
Since the beginning of the Yemen conflict in 2014, child recruitment has become extremely prevalent among parties to the conflict. In December 2018, the New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia has recruited Sudanese children as child soldiers and sent them to the battlefield. Moreover, the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen reported in 2021 that it has investigated cases of children being recruited in Yemen, trained in Saudi Arabia, and used in hostilities in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition and the government of Yemen.
Child recruitment has also been taking place among Yemen’s UAE-backed, non-state armed groups. The UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen reported in 2020 that the UAE was providing support to nearly 90,000 fighters in Yemen, and some of these fighters are known to be children.
The Security Belt Forces and the Shabwani Elite Forces are some of the major UAE-backed armed groups in Yemen. The Security Belt Forces, established in 2016, are the military unit affiliated with the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council—a political council seeking to establish a sovereign and independent federal state in southern Yemen. The Security Belt Forces have recruited children, according to a UN report published last year. And Yemen’s National Commission to Investigate Alleged Violations of Human Rights reported in 2021 that the Shabwani Elite Forces had recruited one child.
Factors Behind the Recruitment of Children
Before the outbreak of the current conflict, during former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule, the recruitment of children happened mainly within government forces. In those days, the defense sector was one of the state’s most stable institutions, providing steady salaries. This situation encouraged families to alter their children’s birth certificates to raise their ages to 18, allowing them to enlist in the army and receive a salary. However, children didn’t necessarily participate in belligerent military activities at the time.
The majority of Yemen’s child soldiers come from destitute families and regions and are lured with money.
Another factor affecting such enlistment was the fact that Yemeni social customs and traditions associate carrying a gun with prestigious status and power, including when it comes to children. There is also a tendency in Yemeni culture to perceive someone who is 15 or 16 as an adult, and no longer a child. At this age, individuals are expected to work, especially if they are already married, having been victims of the practice of child marriage. Laws established prior to the conflict to prohibit child recruitment, such as the aforementioned Juvenile Welfare Act and the Rights of the Child Act, turned out to be extremely weak because they failed to deter perpetrators by mandating and enforcing concrete punishment.
The lack of legislation to ban child marriage has also had an indirect but significant effect on child recruitment. Unable to afford to feed and take care of their children, families escape poverty by marrying off their young children. Married children tend to have children directly after marriage and remain illiterate and without the skills to raise and take care of their children. Child marriages lead to an abundance of children in a family that is already struggling with poverty. It is not unusual in Yemen to find a man or a woman, especially in rural areas, who is still in their twenties yet is already a grandparent. And people who were married as children often push their children to do any kind of work to make money, even if it means taking part in war.
In a country where nearly half the population of 34 million is under 18, children are always plentiful. Given the profound economic crisis that Yemen is currently facing, children have been the victims of economic exploitation amid growing poverty. Reasons for child recruitment vary from one area to another; however, the most common reason behind its success is dire economic circumstances. The destruction of vital infrastructure during the conflict has destroyed livelihoods, including those reliant on farming and fishing systems, making an already dire situation even worse. And the war economy has made participation in armed conflict and related industries one of the key sources of income in the country.
The majority of Yemen’s child soldiers come from destitute families and regions and are lured with money. Through a combination of coercion, solicitation with salaries, and propaganda, children are recruited, and they are easily lured by the promise of a salary of 20,000 Yemeni rials (approximately $80), accommodation, a daily supply of khat (a plant that acts as a stimulant when chewed), tobacco, and other benefits. The salary makes a child feel that they will soon be in a better economic situation and will be able to transfer some of the money to their family and to thereby improve their economic situation as well.
The Recruitment Process
In the child soldier recruitment process, international humanitarian aid plays a significant role. According to numerous reports by local media, the Houthi group steals humanitarian aid and then exploits people’s need for said aid in order to recruit children. Several reports have documented that the group has diverted aid to its military effort.
The Houthi group has created the Supreme Council for Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Cooperation (SCMCHA), which supervises and regulates all humanitarian aid programs carried out in Houthi-controlled areas. However, it often uses this body and other means to “try to compel the selection of certain contractors, restrict the travel of aid workers or otherwise seek to influence aid operations,” according to a statement made in January by UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths.
The Houthi armed group has an advanced system of recruiting given its long history of recruiting children since the 1990s, one that includes brokers, Houthi supervisors, teachers, and neighborhood elders.
The Houthi armed group has an advanced system of recruiting given its long history of recruiting children since the 1990s, one that includes brokers, Houthi supervisors, teachers, and neighborhood elders. Children recruited by the group go into a camp for children where they receive military training. Those camps date to the 1990s when they were called “summer camps” and intended to be run only during the summer, during children’s break from school. Today, those camps are open all year long. And traditional schools are actually being transformed to more closely resemble the organization of the old summer camps. This is being done by the second most important man in the armed group, Yahia Badreddin al-Houthi—the brother of the group’s leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi—who has been the Minister of Education in the Houthi’s de facto northern government since 2016. Al-Houthi has made changes to the curriculum in Houthi-controlled areas, with a focus on the group’s sectarian ideology.
Implications of Child Recruitment
The ramifications of child recruitment, if not carefully and thoroughly addressed, will negatively impact peace-building efforts, especially because numerous child soldiers repeatedly return to fighting, with local media groups claiming that some have returned as many as three times. The increasing militarization of Yemen’s youth in the course of the conflict might become one factor affecting the potential for the conflict to erupt again in the future, even if peace is achieved in the short term. Pre-conflict factors, the devastating impact of the conflict, and the lack of a comprehensive development strategy will all likely lead to continued recruitment—and most likely the re-recruitment—of children. However, comprehensively addressing child recruitment today will help minimize the chances of a return to conflict.
The recruitment of children for warfare in Yemen is not only a fundamental human rights issue; it is also a profound peace issue. No society can achieve peace by turning its children into soldiers.
The recruitment of children for warfare in Yemen is not only a fundamental human rights issue; it is also a profound peace issue. No society can achieve peace by turning its children into soldiers. Any potential political agreement or negotiation to end the conflict in Yemen must therefore include a clause banning the recruitment and use of children in any form of hostilities. The UN and other stakeholders should then establish monitoring procedures to identify individuals and groups that violate such an agreement. The international community needs to play a more proactive role by instituting sanctions against officials and individuals responsible for child recruitment.
The international community should also donate generously to rehabilitation and reintegration programs organized and run by Yemen’s civil society groups who are documenting the recruitment of children for military activities, such as the Yemen Organization for Combating Human Trafficking and Mayyun for Human Rights and Development. The international community must rethink its humanitarian aid funding and limit the ways that local armed groups can manipulate aid to fuel the process of child soldier recruitment, ensuring that aid distribution happens independently and without interference. The Yemeni government must also be pressured to amend its inconsistent laws defining the age of a child, which also feed confusion and lead to victimization. Yemen’s children will soon be the ones building their country’s future, but in order to do so they must first be allowed to enjoy a real childhood, one that is free from exploitation and violence.
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