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YEMEN: Focus on child labour

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Child labour is increasing in Yemen, according to experts.

SANA, 25 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Following a hard day's work of spraying pesticides at a farm in the Yemeni governorate of Mahweet, 113 km northwest of the capital Sana, Mohammed al-Khayati, 12, was so exhausted he fell asleep in a small store where pesticides were kept, as his home was too far. The youngster never awoke after inhaling toxic fumes.

While there are no exact figures on how many child workers have died at work, as many go unreported, activists believe that the numbers could be high.

In addition, aid agencies in the country say the problem of child labour is growing. A report on children and women in Yemen by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in 1998, found that the number of children aged between 10 to 14 years in the workforce was 2.2 million in 1994 compared to 1.6 million in 1991.

The increase is said to be related to the country's economic crisis which worsened in the 1990s, during which thousands of workers lost their jobs. Between 1992 and 1999, the population under the poverty line increased from 12 percent to 34 percent, according to government statistics.

Currently, some 1 million children are working, of whom 421,000 have left school, according to the child labour combat department at the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA).


The primary reason for the problem is poverty. The governorate of Hajaa, 123 km to the north of Sana, has the largest number of child workers with more than 50,000, followed by Ibb, 193 km to the south of Sana, which has 45,000, according to the director of the child labour combat department at the MoSA, Muna Salem.

"The reasons vary from one province to another. For instance, in Hajaa, situated on the border with Saudi Arabia, children have access to the border and there is work to be found there.

But, Ibb is an agricultural province and most of the children join farming. Illiteracy and lack of awareness on the hazards of child labour have increased the problem," Salem explained.

A study carried out by university professor and the Minister of Industry and Trade, Khalid Rajeh Sheikh, also put poverty as the root cause of the problem.

Additionally, he said the current population growth rate of 3.2 percent was not in line with economic growth, which exacerbated the problem. "The relationship between poverty and child labour is very close as choices of children and poor people in general are minimal, particularly in conditions where the poverty circle expands tremendously," the study said.

Over 42 percent of the Yemeni population lives below the poverty line on under US $2 per day, with illiteracy estimated at 50 percent. The average annual individual income was $450 according to 2003 World Bank statistics.

But according to the study, there were other reasons pushing children to leave school. The most common reason was because the family did not allow them to attend, followed by the fact that they could not afford it.

Mukhtar Ali, eight, told IRIN that he sold newspapers to help his father and because his father wanted him to be self-dependent. "Forget about studies and education. I don't have time to graduate and if I finish my schooling, will I get a job?" he asked.

In addition, the study found that 49 percent of child workers were girls, with most of them involved in farming in the countryside, while boys worked in shops or in the handicraft trade.

The number of children working on the streets of Yemen ranges between 13,000 and 15,000, according to the study.

The most common type of work undertaken by these children is selling newspapers, water, household goods, cassettes, fruit and vegetables and cleaning car windscreens.

Around 41 percent of street workers sell agricultural or fish products in their mobile shops for which they face a lot of harassment from the municipal authorities, the study maintained.

Other groups of children can be found begging in major cities across the country. According to a study by UNICEF in 2004 the number of beggars in the capital in 2000 was 4,960.


Many children in Yemen begin working at a very young age, as early as six. They are vulnerable to various forms of hazardous equipment or toxic materials in the workplace, as well as abuse, and their normal development is at risk, according to Salem.

A 2004 study by the MoSA showed that over 83 percent of children working in agriculture were exposed to serious diseases, with almost half of them suffering from acute skin inflammation and 20 percent having stomach problems. Another 5 percent were plagued with epilepsy, after coming into contact with chemicals that affected their nervous system.

In addition, children who work on construction sites carrying heavy loads could hamper their growth, the report said.

Those in workshops, garages and other industrial sites were likely to be exposed to respiratory diseases stemming from air that was polluted with dust, smoke and hazardous vapours, the MoSA’s Salem said.

"We receive reports from our teams in governorates that some children die because of the work they do. The last case was in March of a 12-year-old boy in Mahweet, 113 km northwest of Sana, who died due to burns in a welding workshop," she added.

The ministry worker pointed out that there was a government list on work that children should not perform, which includes a penalty for employers who violate the law.


Article 45 of the 1995 Labour Law states that a child's working hours must not exceed seven hours per day, or 42 hours per week, and that they should not be made to work for more than four continuous hours.

Article 48 ensures that children do not work long hours or during official holidays, however, studies show youngsters are forced to do so.

According to Sheikh’s study, 40 percent of children in the country worked an average of 11 to 17 hours a day and 42 percent worked an average of six to 10 hours a day.

Many were found to work seven days a week. "They are exploited by their employers who prefer child labour because it is cheap and this is completely ignorant of their rights," Sheikh said.
The university professor criticised government institutions saying they were not doing enough to stop children from suffering.

"The government has not covered working children who deserve due attention and better support," he claimed. Sheikh added that children were also being denied access to education, thus reducing their chances of being successful in life.

However, Salem conceded some efforts were being made. "During the last few years, we have succeeded in shifting 1,700 children from doing dangerous and heavy jobs to light ones, and moved another 150 children from night to day time work. We have targeted the provinces where child labour is very common, collected accurate data on the problem and the jobs children perform.”

"We have a plan to make 2005 a year against child labour, naming a local day for children with the motto of "a day without work," she added, noting, however, more work could be done on this issue if greater funds were available.


The Working Children Rehabilitation (WCR) centre in Sana, which focuses on youngsters doing hard intensive labour, offers support and is trying to help alleviate the problem. "We rehabilitate children through professional vocational workshops specific to their age. They are given both theoretical and practical teaching," WCR director, Esam al-Fadhli, told IRIN.
He said the centre was targeting 3,000 working children this year.

In addition, UNICEF is one of the most active international organisations working on the problem. Its office in Sana, in collaboration with the World Bank and International Labour Organization (ILO), is finalising an action plan to combat child labour.

It includes the establishment of workshops in eight governorates, which will result in a long-term action plan extending to 10 years to address the problem.


 Theme(s) Children
Other recent YEMEN reports:

Tsunami damage underestimated, FAO,  28/Aug/05

Vaccination campaign kicks off as polio cases rise,  22/Aug/05

Arab civil society groups call for greater political participation,  17/Aug/05

Experts alert to danger of locust outbreak,  4/Aug/05

Polio cases increase, follow-up vaccinations planned,  4/Aug/05

Other recent Children reports:

SWAZILAND: Community libraries prove the power of access to knowledge, 1/Sep/05

TANZANIA: Report critical of primary education angers minister, 1/Sep/05

MIDDLE EAST: MIDDLE EAST: Weekly round-up Number 37 for 26 August - 1 September 2005, 1/Sep/05

SOUTH AFRICA-ZIMBABWE: Children living in borderland limbo, 31/Aug/05

NIGER: UN, aid groups work to keep donors on board for the long haul, 31/Aug/05

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