In The Face of Impossible Odds

Yemen has been engaged in conflicts throughout its history. There has been at least one armed conflict every ten years during the past 80 years, including after the revolutions of the 1960s that toppled British colonialism in the south and the Imams’ regimes in the north. These conflicts have had devastating effects on all aspects of the country’s development, from economic to political to social; however, these conflicts tend to end within a short period of time. When the Arab spring swept through Yemen, many geographical pockets of the country endured some sort of armed conflict, including the capital Sana’a; but the situation escalated at the end of 2014, becoming a full-blown proxy war by March 2015. The humanitarian situation has been worsening daily since the start of the war, affecting all demographic groups. But one population group is bearing the most devastating blows: the outcomes of this war will have the most devastating effects on youth – the demographic group which ignited the revolution and now fuels the ongoing war. And with no signs of the conflict ending in the near future, youth are facing the prospect of a very grim future if immediate interventions are not made.

 IMAGE COURTSEY OF AHMED SHIHAB AL-QADI

IMAGE COURTSEY OF AHMED SHIHAB AL-QADI

Youth in Yemen make up the majority of the population; it is estimated that people between the ages of 0–24 constitute more than 60 per cent of the population. The youth unemployment rate is at 30 per cent, and this ‘youth bulge’ is mirrored across the Middle East. The increase of violence in countries such as Syria and Yemen can be attributed to increasing numbers of alienated youth. This dismal formula is what caused them to revolt and take to the streets in 2011. However, a recent study[1] found that youth were not the focus of international programming during that period. The same study found that a lack of educational and economic opportunities instigated a feeling of restlessness because of the inability of youth to contribute to their families and society. This frustration was and remains a ticking bomb; the current war has worsened and depleted youth development opportunities, leaving them vulnerable to recruitment by various political and radical groups who promise economic benefits and offer some sense of belonging and accomplishment. The hardship of daily life has become unbearable for all, and is currently the prevalent problem affecting youth.

Another recent study[2] found the most immediate problem youth are facing is related to economic factors, as most believe this war has put an end to their aspirations. For example, Yemenis believe that family is the most important safety net, but price hikes and the failure of many institutions and industries, both private or public, has put great financial stress on families. Public salaries haven’t been issued for a very long time, leaving the one million public employees and eight million family members who rely on this income in very difficult financial situations. Young Yemenis witness the financial destitution of their families and the disintegration of their safety net, and this invokes a feeling of helplessness – an inability to alleviate their family’s struggles due to a lack of opportunities. Of the 1,500 research report participants, 43 per cent stated that their families are struggling immensely because of the increase in food prices; when asked what families needed most, food ranked the highest. The World Food Program found national average price for flour was 28.4 per cent higher than in the pre-crisis period; sugar and vegetable oil were respectively 27.2 per cent and 15 per cent more expensive; and the price of cooking gas increased by 82.5 per cent, petrol by 42.7 per cent, and diesel by 41.6 per cent.

 IMAGE COURTSEY OF AHMED SHIHAB AL-QADI

IMAGE COURTSEY OF AHMED SHIHAB AL-QADI

After a brief period focusing on youth development projects, international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) switched focus to delivering aid into the country. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates[3] there are 22.2 million adults in need of humanitarian assistance, 11.3 million of whom are children, and 16.37 million in need of basic health care. Cholera is plaguing the country and cases can now be found in all governorates (3,332 districts)[4]; the World Health Organization reported over 1 million suspected cases last year and 2,200 deaths. With the summer looming, an increase of cases is forecast due to a lack of proper sanitation and access to clean water. Youth find themselves neglected again, and against near-impossible odds: 4.1 million children need educational assistance; there has been a 20 per cent increase in children leaving school, with the number exceeding two million, and of people aged between 15–25, only 42 per cent were enrolled in school or university; while three quarters of teachers haven’t been paid salaries in over a year, further aggravating the issue and unsettling the educational process. The absence of the state magnifies all these problems, and so it is imperative that INGOs and local civil society organizations tackle youth development issues and fill that gap. It is critical to adopt a holistic approach instead of focusing solely on aid.

The absence of any real change for youth leaves them vulnerable to exploitation from different political and radical movements. UN agencies have reported 1,500 cases of child soldiers at the end of 2017, and with all the hardships, joining a militia for economic stability becomes a likely outcome for many people, and the possibility of adopting radical ideologies increases due to a lack of education – hence the rise of religious extremism. However, most conflicts young Yemenis face occur within neighborhoods, mainly because of political differences, food, fuel and medicine. With no alternatives to occupy their time, and no sense of value, the likelihood of them contributing to society slowly diminishes.

In the future, this negligence will certainly become more problematic with the growth of youth numbers still on the rise, and education stalling, breeding a toxic atmosphere in which millions of young Yemenis become a liability, not only for Yemen but also for the international community. If the ongoing war continues, young uneducated people will continue to fuel future conflicts and become an international threat. Little or no opportunities are currently at hand for them; even the prospect of seeking refuge in different countries is very unlikely due to the immense difficulty of leaving the country, as there are no corridors through which mass migration can be an option, compared with the Syrian scenario, where many disenfranchised youth were able to migrate to different countries in search of better opportunities. Yemeni youth find themselves imprisoned in their country, unable to achieve their dreams and aspirations, and robbed of their basic human rights. There are many examples of countries investing in youth and education and reaping economic and social benefits in a short period of time, for example, South Korea. Lessons should be learned from similar success stories, if we are to avoid a catastrophic future for millions of people, robbed of the chance of a decent life before they are born.

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[1] Youth in Crisis in the Middle East and North Africa: a Systematic Literature Review and Focused Landscape Analysis, 2015, Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal. http://applications.emro.who.int/emhj/v21/12/EMHJ_2015_21_12_916_930.pdf?ua=1&ua=1  
[2] Transfield (2017), Coming of Age in a Fragmented State: Everyday Struggles and Perspective of Yemeni Youth, Yemen Polling Center. The research was conducted between 2015 and 2017 and is based on a representative nationwide survey of 1500 youth. The respondents are between the ages of 15 and 25, and there is 50/50 male/female representation.
[3] Humanitarian Response Plan, January-December 2018, UNOCHA.
[4] Yemen Humanitarian Situation Report, UNICEF.