Saturday, November 20, 2010

Yemen: In Yemen, abuse at home can lead to life on the street

Source: United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)

UNICEF-supported centre helps vulnerable children

By Sveinn H. Gudmarsson

SANA'A, Yemen, 19 November 2010 – Life on the street can be very hard, especially if, like Khaled, you are only 16 years old and have no money and nowhere to go. For this teenager, however, anything seemed better than living at home with his family.

"My father was always beating me for lots of different reasons," said Khaled. "Once he even broke my arm." Pointing to scars on his ankles he recalled that his father once "asked a welder to put shackles on my legs. The metal was so hot they had to pour water over it, but I still got burned."

Eventually, Khaled ran away from his home in the mountains west of Yemen's capital. When he left, he took his brother Hamed, 7, with him. "I just wanted to go anywhere," Khaled said, remembering that he thought "perhaps somebody would adopt us."

Seeking better lives

Khaled and Hamed didn't make it across the border, though many other children do. Some get there by their own means, while others are aided by people who specialize in human trafficking. In a project supported by the European Union, UNICEF is working with the Government of Yemen on legislative reforms to impose stricter penalties against traffickers and increase accountability for parents who abuse their children.

In Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, nearly half the population lives on less than $2 per day, and one in five people fall under the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. According to recent UNICEF figures, 94 per cent of Yemeni children between the ages of 2 and 14 have experienced some form of violent discipline. Not surprisingly, many dream of a better life elsewhere – perhaps with their more affluent neighbours in Saudi Arabia.

But far from the sweet life they might have imagined, most of the children who end up in Saudi Arabia are forced into begging or household work. Many are reported to be physically or sexually abused.

Children in safe hands

On a hot day in July, the Harad reception centre was sheltering nine boys, including Khaled and Hamed. The centre is an unassuming building on the outskirts of Sana'a, just kilometres from the Saudi border. Established by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour with financial and technical support from UNICEF, it is run in cooperation with Al-Saleh Foundation, a national non-governmental organization.

Since the centre's opening in 2004, it has received more than 10,000 children, almost all of whom are boys.

All the boys who were at the facility with Khaled and Hamed said they had run away from home to escape abuse. Although none of them had been involved with child traffickers, about 60 per cent of the children who come through the Harad centre do report such encounters.

"Children are brought here having been taken into custody by either the Yemeni or Saudi police," said Nabil Shalif, who directs the centre. "They are given shelter and food, medical care, education and psychological support."

'They should not have to suffer'

Mr. Shalif's staff works to reunite children with their families as soon as possible, provided the child's safety is guaranteed. If not, the children are transferred to a more permanent care facility in Sana'a.

"If we did not do this work, these children would probably still be on the street," he said. "They do not know their rights and they do not understand that they should not have to suffer abuse at home. When they come to the centre, they start to think about this. They know that abuse is wrong, and they know their legal status."

Khaled's future is still unclear, but after a short stay at the centreu he had gained a better understanding of his options. Going to Saudi Arabia by himself was no longer one of them.

"If I go back home, I would very much like to stay with my grandmother," he said. "If that is not possible, I could perhaps live in a children's centre in Sana'a." He paused, looked briefly at his younger brother and added in a solemn voice: "Whatever happens, I just want someone kind to take good care of us and help us go back to school."