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Even before Yemen plunged into chaos this year, rates of malnutrition were the third highest in the world.
SANAA, Yemen — There is no famine in Yemen. There are no vultures looming over skeletal babies. No film cameras to record flies landing on hollowed faces. No pop concert to raise awareness.
Hunger in Yemen is not photogenic, but is rather the unfulfilled potential, lost dreams and gnawing pain passed from one generation to the next.
Yemeni children don’t grow up to be big and strong. A shocking 58 percent (just 1 percent behind the worst rate, Afghanistan) grow up stunted, physically and mentally less than their potential.
More than one in three children are severely stunted, according to a recent report by Oxfam calling for urgent action by international donors to assist communities “on the brink of disaster” in the Arab world’s poorest country.
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Even before Yemen plunged into chaos this year with President Ali Abdullah Saleh defying mass protests to end his 33-year rule, rates of malnutrition were the third highest in the world, higher than anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, behind only India and Bangladesh, according to the World Food Program.
Hunger in Yemen begins in the womb and continues to blight the lives of one-third of the population, more than 7 million people.
One-quarter of Yemeni women between the ages of 15 and 49 are acutely malnourished, according to UNICEF, the UN’s children’s charity, which has led to some of the world’s lowest average birth weights.
Despite this, Yemeni women have more babies than their counterparts in almost any other country, an average of 6.5 children per woman.
In this “silent emergency,” as aid workers describe it, women suffer miscarriages, children are taken out of school to earn money and girls are married off early. Their fathers, unable to find work to provide for their large families, chew the mildly narcotic Qat plant to quell their hunger.
And although billions have been pledged to assist other nations emerging from the Arab Spring, the UN’s Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan calling for $290 million, much of it “life-saving” assistance for Yemenis displaced by conflict, remains only just over half-funded.
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“In neighboring Somalia, we have seen what happens if warnings go unheeded, and too little is done in time to stop a crisis,” said Valerie Amos, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator. “Let us not repeat the same mistake in Yemen.”
Living on the margins
Deep in the highlands of Rayma, 100 miles southwest of Sanaa, the area known as Bilad at-Taam — the land of food — is one of the hungriest places in Yemen, where an average of half of all families suffer acute and chronic hunger.
Standing at the edge of his family home — a single stone room built on hot, arid land beside a straw covered shelter and an outdoor clay oven — Abdo Abdo al-Amry proudly introduced his 14 children.
Their smiling faces show little sign of the starvation the world has come to know from African famines. Yet Amry’s children are chronically malnourished, their legs bony and thin, and their bodies smaller than is healthy for their age — the outcome of years of growing up never having enough to eat.
Eking out a living as a motorcycle taxi on a bike borrowed from a friend and from the meager crops his small plot of land produces, Amry earns less than $2 per day, the income of nearly half of all Yemenis.
With grandparents and sisters sharing the home, Amry has a total of 20 hungry mouths to feed. The most the family can afford is flour to bake their own bread, eaten three times a day, occasionally supplemented with okra, a local vegetable, if the market price is right.
“Sometimes there is okra and sometimes there is nothing,” Amry said.
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The health costs of such a monotonous diet are severe. Several of Amry’s children have developed anemia from lack of vitamins and minerals and have required blood transplants at hospital.
“Because she was very weak I had to give this girl blood three times,” said Saeda, Abdo’s second wife, hugging a small girl in her lap.
“And this one,” she said pulling another of her daughters close to her, “I had to give