Connect to share and comment

Yemen: Hungering for better

Even before Yemen plunged into chaos this year, rates of malnutrition were the third highest in the world.

her blood one time. And the eldest, I gave her blood once as well.”

Four of Saeda’s children died: Her 8-month-old baby as a result of dehydration, and three fetuses miscarried.

Compound crisis

Between 2006 and 2009, economists estimated the effect of the “Triple F Crisis” — increasing food prices, declining fuel revenues and the financial crisis drying remittances from Yemenis working abroad — increased poverty in Yemen by nearly 25 percent, wiping out decades of development.

Since the beginning of the year the political stalemate caused by the uprising has only compounded those losses further.

Fuel prices have risen more than 500 percent of pre-crisis levels, according to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), impacting farmer’s ability to irrigate their land using pumps and increasing the cost of transporting food to market, leading to an average increase in food prices of 46 percent since the beginning of the year.

One-fifth of those interviewed by Oxfam said they had lost their jobs without finding new ones and half said that they were facing decreased incomes compared with the previous six months, making food difficult to afford.

As a result, nearly one in five said they had taken their children out of school to help the family earn their daily bread and nearly two-thirds were skipping meals. Other households said they were selling off items of value in order to buy food.

Adding a further layer to Yemen’s hunger crisis is the mass displacement of families from areas of ongoing conflict. An estimated 300,000 people were displaced by the five-year war between Saleh’s forces and the Huthi rebels in the north, while a further 100,000 have been uprooted due to instability in the south, where Saleh’s forces led a brutal crackdown on a secessionist movement.

Meanwhile, OCHA says up to 40,000 people have been displaced to the coastal city of Aden and the southern governorate of Abyan as a result of fighting between government forces and Al Qaeda-linked militants.

Facing a $60 million shortfall in its 2011 budget for Yemen, the World Food Program (WFP) said it may no longer be able to distribute food rations to the displaced in Aden, let alone reach the millions of ordinary Yemenis going hungry across the country.

School’s out

But even as aid agencies sound the alarm on an imminent humanitarian crisis, the effects of hunger on the impoverishment of Yemeni society will continue well beyond empty bellies at bedtime.

Amry’s eldest son, 9-year-old Majd, walks the five kilometers to school each morning. But his two younger sisters Naema and Salama no longer join him.

“Our Dad withdrew us because we didn't have any clothes or books,” Naema said, leading a donkey down to the well to fetch water.

“We wash dishes, bake, cook and clean. We would love to be studying in school instead of staying at home,” Naema said. “With school you can be a doctor, but without school you cannot.”

To create an incentive for girls to go to school, WFP used to provide a sack of wheat to families like Amry’s if their daughters regularly attended classes. The wheat handed out once a term off-set the cost of school books and of not having the girl working at home.

But facing critical budget shortfalls, WFP was forced to end its “Food for Education” program in Rayma, and Amry no longer saw the point of paying for the cost of his daughters’ education.

“I withdrew them because they stopped giving us wheat,” he said. “So it is better to keep them at home rather than going to school. If there is wheat, they can go back.”

With no classes to occupy them, Amry said he would soon be searching for husbands for Naema and Salama, eager to earn the best dowry possible for marrying off his daughters, around $1,000 each if they married into another poor family.

And so, uneducated through lack of food, Naema and Salama will join the 70 percent of Yemeni women who are illiterate in the nation that has consistently ranked lowest in the Global Gender Gap index.

They will also be among the half of Yemeni girls from their area married before they are 15. And lacking education and empowerment, it is more than likely Naema and Salama will each bear many more children than their much elder husbands can ever afford to feed, ensuring the cycle of hunger continues into the next generation.

“My father made me study and my ambition was to be a doctor,” Saeda said.

“I studied in Saudi Arabia and then the crisis happened and we left. We came here but we couldn’t continue school because we didn’t have clothes, books or pencils. My father couldn’t afford all of that. So he asked us to leave school. She feels sorry in her heart,” said Saeda, looking over at her young daughter. “And I also regret that I couldn't finish school. But what can I do?”