Page last updated at 12:16 GMT, Saturday, 30 January 2010

The dark side of children's lives in Yemen

Traditional Yemen tower houses in Sanaa (Photo by Hugh Sykes)
The climate and setting should make Sanaa a paradise for children

Yemen has not been out of the news since it was linked to the failed Christmas Day bomb plot. But Hugh Sykes finds that for the country's 10 million children, the growing threat from al-Qaeda is the least of their problems.

Many Yemenis have said the West dissolved into panic after the failed Christmas Day bombing on a Detroit-bound airliner. Panic and cowardice.

The political adviser to President Ali Abdullah Saleh told me that the British decision to cancel direct flights from Sanaa to London unless they first landed in Paris for a security check, was an over-reaction.

Not to mention what it revealed about the attitude of the British government towards the safety of the citizens of Paris, if it really thought there was a danger from Yemenia flights.

Yemeni children in a doorway (Photo by Hugh Sykes)
Many Yemeni children live in poverty and are malnourished

But Yemen has a lot more to worry about than al-Qaeda, with vigorous battles against secessionists in the south and against Zaidis in the north.

Zaidis (also called Houthis) are a branch of Shia Islam, in this predominantly Sunni nation.

There are other immense challenges. Oil, Yemen's main source of income, is predicted to run out in five years.

And water in Yemen is also expected to run dry five years from now.

There have been riots over water, and one southern town has not had tap water for two months. It is delivered by tanker.

Looming threat

There is intense poverty, widespread malnutrition, high unemployment and inflation, endemic corruption... And there is another threat looming - nearly half the Yemeni population of 20 million is under 15 years old.

So there are almost 10 million children.

You see and hear the infectious giggling and laughter all the time in the narrow alleyways of old Sanaa city, as children rush happily about, playing hopscotch or dodging cars and kicking a football around.

The climate and the setting should be a paradise for children.

There's a guaranteed outdoor life in a city that is 2,200m (about 7,500ft) above sea level, and so, even though the equator is not far to the south, it is never really hot or cold here.

Very few of the old houses have either central heating or air conditioning. There is no need.

Yemeni boys selling hard-boiled eggs on the street(Photo by Hugh Sykes)
Selling hard-boiled eggs is one way children earn money

Sanaa is a city of tower houses - many of them four, five, even 10 storeys high.

They are built of stone at the base, and brick above - and there is ornate plasterwork around stained glass windows.

In the gaps between these tower blocks there are views of distant barren mountains.

Some of these buildings are said to be 900 years old, and Sanaa competes with Damascus in claiming that it is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.

But there's a dark side to this beauty.

Many of the children who live in these lovely houses go out to work instead of going to school.

Or they do both, making for long exhausting days. They walk the streets selling hard-boiled eggs, or they help their fathers in tiny workshops with the sound of carpenters planing wood and blacksmiths beating red-hot steel on anvils.

And there is an even darker side, which I learn about during a qat-chewing session.

Qat is a mild stimulant which helps you stay awake.

Child brides

One of the streets in old Sanaa is a qat market.

My new friend Ahmed and I buy a great bunch of green qat leaves, and go back to his flat.

Ahmed washes them in the shower, and picks the fresh leaves from the tops of the stems and shows me how to chew.

You grind away at them with your teeth, and then tuck the mangled result into one cheek, making it bulge out. You go on doing it for hours. And you talk.

What Ahmed talks about makes me gasp.

He talks about child brides.

Two Yemeni girls (Photos by Hugh Sykes)
The streets of Sanaa ring with infectious giggling and laughter

Fifteen is the favoured age for a bride here. But Ahmed knows a girl who married when she was eight.

She married her cousin, who was 22. On their wedding night, he expected sex. She didn't understand. She screamed and tried to run away, but her aunt - her husband's mother - came into the room, and ordered her son to "touch her", as Ahmed describes it.

He tells me: "If I had known this at the time, I would have killed him."

But he says he did not know, because the girl could not describe what had happened.

She is now withdrawn and deeply disturbed. Only her father protects her.

The girl's mother - her husband's aunt - wants her to go and live with her husband, and his family are demanding the return of their dowry if she does not.

This is an extreme example of unpunished assault that women routinely endure here.

A survey by the World Organisation Against Torture in 2000 shows nearly half the women questioned in Yemen had experienced domestic violence.

About 20% suffered sexual violence within their marriage.

As I wander the alleyways between the lovely buildings of Sanaa, a young girl with an engaging smile appears from a doorway.

She skips alongside me as I walk, friendly, innocent and trusting. She asks my name and where I am from - in English.

I ask her how old she is. Eight.

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SEE ALSO
Yemen calls for Gulf assistance
28 Jan 10 |  Middle East
Child marriage and divorce in Yemen
06 Nov 08 |  Middle East
Yemeni child bride gets annullment
16 Apr 08 |  Middle East


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