SANA'A, Yemen (July 16, 2012) — “Wouldn't you instinctively want to invest in hope more than horror?” These were the words of UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake during his three-day visit to Yemen this week.
Yemen’s civil unrest over the last 17 months has left a heavy toll on the civilian population, especially children. The current crisis is taking place against a backdrop of near-economic collapse. Severe fuel and water shortages, combined with skyrocketing prices—particular for food and water—have been detrimental to children’s well-being. Massive efforts are now necessary to help children overcome the impact of these crises.
Even before the current unrest, which started in February 2011, Yemen was already in a state of chronic underdevelopment, with development indicators comparable to those of sub-Saharan African countries. As of January 2012, 340,000 people had been displaced by warfare in northern Yemen, and conflict in the south had placed children increasingly in the crossfire and displaced an additional 100,000 people.
Yemen has one of the highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the world, with 58% of children reported as stunted. Almost 1 million children are acutely malnourished, with about 267,000 suffering from severe acute malnutrition.
"In Yemen, there are over 250,000 children who suffer from severe, acute malnutrition, which means they could die very soon. This is almost as many as there were in Somalia during the height of the crisis last year," said Mr. Lake as he toured Al-Sabeen Hospital in Sana’a.
Many Yemenis do not consider ‘thinness’ to be a cause for concern. Community understanding of malnutrition and its lifelong effects on children is therefore limited, with stunting and thinness too often considered ‘normal’.
A recent study conducted in the western governorate of Hodeidah shows that the global acute malnutrition rate is 31.7% among children under the age of five, and the national global acute malnutrition rate stands at 15%. The lack of safe drinking water, proper sanitation, and hygiene facilities contribute as much to high levels of acute malnutrition as insufficient nutrition and food.
During his visit, Mr. Lake met 14-month-old Rabab at the Al Sabeen Hospital’s therapeutic feeding center, where she is being treated for malnutrition. Rabab lives with her single mother and ten surviving siblings (four have died). Their only source of income is a rented cow used to help carry goods at the local market.
“These children are the human faces in those statistics, every one of them and their voices are not being heard,” said Mr. Lake.
UNICEF is responding with lifesaving interventions at feeding centers. The organization is also ensuring the availability of a minimum package of interventions, which include: community management of acute malnutrition with three therapeutic feeding centers per governorate; three outpatient therapeutic posts per district; a minimum of community volunteers at district level. These efforts also include the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding; infant and young child feeding practices; micronutrient supplementation; improved water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services; vaccination; and behavioral change initiatives. Special focus and priority is given to emergency locations and displaced settlements.
Over the last three months, UNICEF has increased the number of outpatient therapeutic outlets from 474 to 518 and trained over 1,000 health staff nationwide in the management of severe and acute malnutrition. UNICEF has also trained 1,300 community volunteers to identify and refer children with malnutrition. An integrated approach to combat malnutrition and its causes is being implemented in the Taiz, Hadda and Hodeida governorates, where surveys show malnutrition levels exceed the emergency threshold of 15%.
UNICEF and partners have a humanitarian imperative to provide severely acutely malnourished children with treatment. But this alone will not change the overall picture, nor will it give children the right to live a full and healthy life. Longer-term investments are required to ensure that children also have access to quality health services, safe drinking water, and improved hygiene and sanitation facilities. This can only be achieved with strong political will and an effective balance between political stability and economic growth on the one hand and humanitarian and development interventions on the other.