Desperate Families in Yemen Are Resorting to Child Marriage and Labor as Coronavirus Spreads

U.N. humanitarian programs in the war-ravaged country are “reaching a potential breaking point,” said a U.N. spokesman.
May 26, 2020, 7:26pm
14 April 2020, Yemen, Sanaa: Yemeni people inspect the damage in a flooded market following heavy rains in Sanaa. Photo by: Hani Al-Ansi/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The coronavirus outbreak in war-ravaged Yemen is pushing more desperate families to resort to “harmful coping mechanisms” like child labor and marrying off their young daughters, the United Nations said Tuesday.

At a virtual briefing, Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, said the economic strain of the outbreak was impacting on some of the most vulnerable members of society.

“We are seeing a growing number of families resorting to harmful coping mechanisms such as begging, child labor, and marrying off children to survive,” he said, adding that U.N. humanitarian programs in the country were “reaching a potential breaking point” under the strain of the outbreak.

Yaxley was unable to respond by time of publication to a VICE News request for exact figures on the extent of the rise in child marriage and labor. But humanitarian organizations have previously warned that the increased pressures of the coronavirus on Yemen — considered by the U.N. to be the world’s largest humanitarian crisis even before the virus hit — would likely result in a rise in both scourges, as poverty-stricken families turned to extreme coping mechanisms.

War and the associated rise in poverty have been the major drivers of the rise in child marriage in Yemen in recent years, according to the U.N. Faced with deepening poverty — the war has shattered Yemen’s economy and left 80 percent of the country dependent on humanitarian aid to survive — growing numbers of families have married off their daughters at young ages, feeling they could no longer afford to provide for them, or that their husbands’ families were better equipped to care for them, according to UNICEF.

READ: Yemen is dealing with war, famine, displacement — and now coronavirus

In an International Rescue Committee report last month, the group said rates of child marriage had tripled in the first three years of the conflict as Yemen’s economy contracted; coronavirus and the lockdown measures to counter it were likely to make the problem worse.

World Food Programme spokeswoman Elizabeth Byrs said Tuesday that 2 million children in Yemen were already suffering acute malnutrition, and coronavirus could push many more to the brink.

“The humanitarian situation in Yemen could spin out of control as COVID-19 threatens a population already weakened by years of conflict,” she said.

READ: Coronavirus could cause famines ‘of biblical proportions’ around the world

Ravaged by years of war since Houthi rebels ousted the government from power in the capital Sanaa, prompting a Saudi-led military coalition to intervene in March 2015, Yemen is considered one of the countries most vulnerable to a coronavirus outbreak. A third of the country’s 10 million people are facing famine, while more than 3 million are displaced and living in overcrowded settlements where social distancing and proper hygiene are impossible.

Since the country confirmed its first COVID case last month, 44 people have died from the virus, according to officials. But humanitarian groups working in the country say they believe the true death toll is much higher, due to the low rate of testing — just 31 tests per million people — and the surging numbers of deaths with suspected symptoms, resulting in overflowing cemeteries.

Earlier this month, Save the Children said nearly 400 people were reported to have died of coronavirus-like symptoms in one week in the city of Aden alone. It said that several hospitals in the city had shut down and medical staff were refusing to go to work due to a lack of proper PPE.

And Doctors Without Borders, which runs the only dedicated COVID-19 treatment center in southern Yemen, said the 68 deaths it had seen in the facility in Aden was only the tip of the iceberg.

“It is plain that we are seeing a really bad outbreak in Aden,” Caroline Seguin, the organization’s operations manager for Yemen, told VICE News Tuesday.

“We know that we are only seeing a small fraction of the sick and dying in the city, however, with the authorities reporting 80 or even 90 burials a day, up from the pre-outbreak normal of ten.”

READ: Coronavirus is so bad that Saudi Arabia called a ceasefire in Yemen’s ‘nightmare’ civil war

She said that many patients were arriving at the hospital severely hypoxic — lacking in oxygen — suggesting that many more were seriously sick and dying at home.

“People are gasping for breath like a fish out of water, and often dying quickly after arrival despite being put on oxygen,” she said. “We are really seeing how deadly this disease can be, and many of the people dying in Aden are 40-60 years old, which is quite a bit younger than the average age of those people who died in Europe.”

Cover: 14 April 2020, Yemen, Sanaa: Yemeni people inspect the damage in a flooded market following heavy rains in Sanaa. Photo by: Hani Al-Ansi/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images