Press Briefing: UNICEF Regional Director on the situation of children in Yemen
TRANSCRIPT - REMARKS TO MEDIA
GEERT CAPPELAERE, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, returning from a field visit to Yemen
Thank you - a warm welcome to all of you this morning.
I’ve just come out of Yemen. I’ve spent the last week both in the South and in the North of the country and wanted to share some hard-hitting observations. I wanted to also share with you the impact that three years of brutal war and decades of chronic underdevelopment is having on 11 million Yemeni boys and girls.
Let me thank you all, distinguished representatives of the media, for the attention you’ve been giving to the extremely dire situation in which the people of Yemen find themselves, particularly the children. But much more attention is needed. This has been rightly described as one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has ever known.
In 2017 alone, we’ve seen children continue to be killed and seriously injured at a rate of a minimum of five children every single day. In 2017, we have seen outbreaks of deadly cholera and deadly diphtheria. Many hundreds of children have been killed as a result of that as well.
It is fair to say today that every single girl and boy in Yemen is facing acute humanitarian needs. Three years of war, decades of chronic underdevelopment have done something for the children of Yemen – but unfortunately nothing good.
Three years of war in Yemen have made severe acute malnutrition double in three years’ time. In 2015, because of Yemen’s underdevelopment, we had 200,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition – life-threatening malnutrition. In 2015, that was already one of the biggest caseloads of severe acute malnutrition in the entire world. Today, because of three years of brutal war, that caseload has doubled, making Yemen among the three countries with the highest number of acute malnourished children in the world; and it is important that we emphasize that because it can get worse. The threat of famine we have had in Yemen for some time, is still very much there. The limited access to drinking water Yemeni people across the country are facing is still there.
These are two critical contributing factors to the problem of malnutrition.
As the international community, along with the local heroes, the health and humanitarian workers in Yemen, we should pause for a moment to be proud to have managed to stem the cholera outbreak after many months. We can be proud, in the past two weeks to have done a vaccination campaign against diphtheria. But let’s not fool ourselves, cholera will come back. In a few weeks from now, we have the rainy season starting again, so without huge and immediate investments, cholera will hit the children of Yemen once more.
Three years of war, decades of underdevelopment have done more to children than just the confrontation with death, life-threatening preventable diseases.
We talk about the health crisis in Yemen, we talk about the health emergency, about the famine in Yemen, looming at every corner. But what we talk much less about is the education crisis in Yemen.
Today in Yemen, compared to three years ago, half a million more children are not able any longer to go to school. Today, close to 2 million Yemeni boys and girls are not attending school or never had a chance to.
There are several reasons for that. One is of course the brutal war. We have been able to verify that 2,500 schools today that are no longer serving for educational purposes. Schools that have been destroyed by the war. Schools that are being used for military purposes, or for hosting displaced people.
Very important is also poverty as a reason why an additional half a million children aren’t benefitting from education. Today close to 80 per cent of Yemenis are living in poverty. I can tell you from wandering around in the South and in the North last week that this is an underestimation. But let’s go with the official figures, 80 per cent of people living in deep poverty in Yemen, not any longer able to afford the minimum expense for allowing boys and girls to go to school.
I was struck last week, particularly in Sana’a by children begging in the street. I was myself UNICEF representative in Yemen a few years ago. I never saw anything like it years ago. Very small children who are stretching out their hands for a little bit of money, for a little bit of food. Parents having to make the difficult choice to send their children to beg, to send them to work instead of being in school.
Parents, having to make the difficult choice to marry off their girls at an early age to have one less mouth to feed in the family. Today, 75 per cent of Yemeni girls are married before the age of 18. Half of Yemeni girls are married before age 15. Let us not fool ourselves. Sending your child to beg, sending your child to work, marry your girl at an early age, are not choices that any Yemeni father or mother want to make. It is not a choice, it is forced on them because of this brutal war.
It’s not just access to education that is a problem but also the quality of education. Let me share with you an experience from my trip last week, sitting with a group of 12-13-year-old girls outside Sana’a, talking about their day to day reality at home and at school.
I will never forget the moment when one of the girls threw her text book at me – saying: “This is what we have to learn from in Yemen. Textbooks that are 30 to 40 years old.”
Yemeni children learn from textbooks that are decades old while others elsewhere in the world have access to internet, have their iPads to learn from.
(The girl continued): “We need to learn from this? How can we ever become the doctors, the teachers, the engineers that Yemen so badly needs if we need to learn from this?” A question I had no answer to, but an indication of how Yemeni children are suffering the impact of war and the underinvestment in the education sector.
The education sector in Yemen is on the verge of collapse. It is collapsing. I have seen that in every single school I visited and heard that from every single teacher I spoke to. Not only is the destruction of the schools there, but also to know that the majority of the teachers in Yemen have not received their salaries in over a year. Teachers who are still committed to go and teach, a majority of them, again the heroes, with little or no financial returns for them. Teachers I have spoken to in the South and the North who are there because they believe that they should not give up despite what their political leadership is doing with the country. Despite this senseless brutal war that continues to rage across the country.
They feel that there is another message. A message of hope. And the only way they can get that across is by continuing to teach. It is a fundamental children’s right.
Let me conclude with a couple of asks.
Three years of war on children in Yemen. Thousands of children killed, thousands more seriously injured.
The first ask is a simple one: for the brutal war on children to stop. Not tomorrow, but now. It’s a senseless war from a children’s perspective. No single boy or girl understands what this is all about. And I wonder whether the political leadership knows what this is about. Definitely not making a better future for children. So, once again, stop that brutal war on children. Ensure that the sacred principle of children to be protected always and everywhere, that sacred principle that the international community agreed on unanimously decades ago, is no longer there in Yemen. None of the parties, none of those who have influence on them, have for a second respected this principle since the start of this brutal war on children.
My second ask on behalf of the million of Yemeni girls and boys is equally simple and straightforward. I call on the authorities in all parts of the country for humanitarian assistance and assistance altogether to be allowed without any single condition. We as UNICEF, we as a humanitarian community, are losing time discussing conditions that are imposed by all sides. Conditions preventing us from delivering humanitarian assistance. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Last year, over a million people were affected by cholera or acute watery diarrhea. We know how to prevent it: access to drinking water, cholera vaccination. Well, we have spent weeks, months, negotiating whether we could get the cholera vaccination done. I am very happy that last week, the authorities agreed, “yes, you can do it” but we have lost precious time.
We had to negotiate – just imagine, a country where we are working day and night to guarantee that children, families have access to drinking water. Pumping it from deep underground. But for that, we need fuel. But if you don’t let in fuel, then we have the alternative to use solar power. But some parties refused to allow in even solar panels. Even questions about us importing pipes for water.
We are losing time, energy and money on conversations that should never happen. Access to humanitarian supplies, supplies that are needed to deliver against the acute needs of the population cannot and shall not be negotiated.
I am happy that over the last week the authorities agreed for UNICEF, with the very precious support from the World Bank, to start our second payment of the emergency cash transfers. Giving the 1.5 million most vulnerable families a little bit of cash for them to help their children. Well, also that was questioned. Whether or not we could start the second payment. We had the money, we had the people in place, everyone was ready. No, we needed to negotiate. There is nothing to negotiate. The most vulnerable population, 80 per cent of people are poor, you don’t negotiate whether to give them a little bit of cash. So, I am happy that the authorities stepped up to allow us to start this week – tomorrow – the next payment. But it took an incredible amount of time and money that should never have to be invested.
Humanitarian access – and that’s my ask to all the parties – should be unconditional.
My third and last ask comes back to education.
We want donors to continue being very generous with the Yemeni people and children. The children are suffering the brutal impact of a war not of their making. Jeopardizing their future. What future is there for children if you deprive 2 million of education. If you can’t guarantee some quality in their education that makes them competitive, that makes them doctors, engineers, teachers. So investment in education is critical and I call upon all the international community to continue being generous and to prioritize the education sector.
Often in humanitarian settings, education is a sector overlooked. This jeopardizes the future for children.
Continue investing in education, ensure through that investment that we can start guaranteeing to these teachers who are true heroes, working for free so that at least we can compensate them and their families a little bit with incentives so they continue with their aspirations to get the best education possible for their children. The salary issue will have to be sorted in the political negotiations but we can’t wait for that. We need to guarantee through an incentive system that teachers get a least a little bit of an incentive to continue their work.
Let me conclude by saying that Yemen was once called “Arabia Felix” – happy Arabia - but there is not much happiness there today. Happiness will only come back to Yemen, if we invest in children, stop the brutal war and invest in education.
Thank you so very much.
Today, nearly every single child in Yemen needs humanitarian assistance.
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