Just a year ago, Yemen was one of the few countries with a “children’s parliament,” an elected body of teenagers that advised the nation’s lawmakers. Its main concern: how to end the recruitment of children, by both the military and armed groups, to act as soldiers.
Fast forward to 2015 and Yemen’s government has collapsed. Its capital was taken over in February by rebel Houthi fighters backed by Iran. The country – already the poorest among Arab nations – is in chaos, awash in militias such as an Al Qaeda affiliate. Now an Arab foreign force, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States, is expected to launch a ground invasion with the aim to restore the elected government.
According to the United Nations, the invading troops should not be surprised to find thousands of child soldiers. Last year, the recruitment of children by armed groups rose by nearly 50 percent as the Middle East nation descended into a proxy battlefield between Iran and Saudi Arabia. One Yemeni analyst told Al Jazeera that more than a third of Houthi fighters are under 18 years old.
This recruitment was made easier as the humanitarian crisis has worsened. Nearly two-thirds of Yemen’s 25 million people are in need of water, food, and other assistance, the UN estimates. Oxfam says Yemen is a “humanitarian crisis of extreme proportions.”
The surge in child soldiers is a setback for the UN. The world body has made progress in reducing the number of child soldiers worldwide. Last March it launched a “Children Not Soldiers” initiative with the goal to end recruitment of child soldiers by next year. Yemen was a major focus along with Iraq, Syria, South Sudan, Nigeria, Mali, and Central African Republic.
In some countries, the UN has found surprising receptivity among rebel groups to honor the innocence of children by not recruiting them or releasing their child soldiers.
“While the picture may often seem bleak, many non-state actors have shown some willingness and commitment to working with the UN to end violations and abuses committed against children by entering into action plans and committing to the protection of children in peace processes,” says Mark Lyall Grant, the UK Ambassador to the UN.
As the armed conflict in Yemen escalates, the world must focus on those most in need. The children of Yemen were engaged with a newly-won democracy just a year ago, with many of them active in their own parliament. The country has many needs but perhaps the greatest need is to protect the right of Yemen’s youngest to their peaceful innocence.