Children need a better future [Archives:2004/747/Community]

June 17 2004

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff
and Marguerite Abadjian
For the Yemen Times

The first rehabilitation center for working children in Yemen has been a success. Established in early 2003, the center, a joint venture between the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the municipal government of Sanaa, works with up to 350 child laborers. The aim is to get the children to go to school, which gives the children a better future.
But even though the center is showing promise and is expanding into other cities, it is dealing with only a small fraction of the problem. There are roughly two million working children out of Yemen's 19 million population.
The majority of the children live in rural areas, which take up over three-quarters of the country's population, and most of the children are involved in agricultural activities or family businesses. The number of working children dropping out of school is high: around 30% of working children attend school, and even more startling, only 14% of working girls continue their education.
Child laborers work nearly as much as full-time adults, putting in on average almost 39 hours per week.
Programs, projects, NGOs and workshops have flooded Yemen in the last few years to tackle this problem. But up until now there has been a lack of coordination which has hindered progress.
“Isolated projects don't solve problems. It needs to be holistic. We must identify gaps in education, the economy, jobs and so on,” said Samira Bindaair, National Program Manager with ILO's International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor.
The country's prominent reform programs – the Strategic Vision 2025, the Second Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development and the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper – don't address the issue of child labor.
To help deal with child labor head-on is the development of the National Strategy for Children and Youth.
“It didn't take long for me to realize that we had programs, projects and donors, but there needed to be good coordination and proper implementation,” said Nafisa Al-Jaifi, Secretary General of the Higher Council for Motherhood and Childhood since August 2001. “We decided to do a thorough job and take the right steps to put together one plan, which is the National Plan.”
The plan aims to study the conditions of children and coordinate programs and policies to take on the problems children face in a comprehensive manner. It helps steer efforts from the government and organizations across the board to improve the living conditions of children, ranging from health and education to reducing the number of working children.
The report will be ready and presented to the government in the middle of 2005.
“I am personally committed to it because I believe it is an important program to really understand what the problems are, the magnitude and from there to see how to deal with different problems,” said Abdulkarim Al-Arhabi, Minister of Social Affairs and Labor and Managing Director of the Social Fund for Development.
“The National Strategy will provide the country with a vision, and we will try to disseminate the strategy and get all the parties to work together. We must have a multi-sector approach, including the Ministries of Health, Justice, Social Affairs, Education, the Interior, and so on. We are doing a lot to prepare for this. The strategy will help us know what the problems and challenges are, what are the right ways to deal with them, what are the right policies, and we will develop an action plan in which everybody will be involved,” Al-Arhabi said.
To help get working children to go to school, the Ministry of Education has launched an aggressive school construction project to increase the number of classrooms in rural areas. Six-hundred new schools for basic education were introduced this year, which averages 1.7 new schools per day.
“These schools were built in the most needy areas,” said Minister of Education Abudsalam Al-Joufi. “We chose places based on poverty and enrollment, mostly the enrollment of girls.”
The Social Fund for Development has also been providing facilities to help increase enrollment. According to Al-Arhabi, it has built over 7000 classrooms in many parts of the country since it started its operations in 1998.
Many believe that traditions play a role in urging children to work. Some start from an early age helping a family business. As for girls, it is a common belief in rural areas that it is not important for them to be educated since they should only be prepared to concentrate on being a housewife and raise children.
But analysts say that poverty is the main driving force pushing children into the workforce.
About 42 percent of Yemenis live below the poverty line and around 25 percent of the population is vulnerable while living just above poverty. It is estimated that between 25 percent and 30 percent of the Yemeni population is unemployed. Economic growth is not keeping up with the rise in population. The population growth rate is estimated to be as high as 3.6 percent annually, while the GDP growth rate fell below 3.6 percent last year and may not exceed 3.3 percent in 2004. According to a recent Arab League survey, Yemen remains the poorest country in the Middle East as the average annual income per capita stands at $508.
“We have projects to deal with working children, but what have been the results? We work with children, but what about poverty? When will poverty be dealt with strongly and effectively?” said Bindaair. “There is a dilemma. The first cause of children dropping out of school is poverty because they need to help support their families. There are also no jobs or careers once they get out of secondary school or college. What's the point of getting an education when there are no opportunities in the future? This really discourages children to continue their education.”
The Yemeni government, with the assistance of the World Bank, has economic reform in place. But over the last few years, implementing key elements have been stalling. “It is absolutely critical for Yemen to get back on the reform path,” said Robert Hindle, Country Manager of The World Bank based in Yemen. “Yemen has done exceptionally well in terms of bringing stability and security to the country in a difficult time. What it has not done has been to pursue what is necessary to reform the economy.”
According to Hindle, more effort needs to be applied to reform the judicial system, property rights, imports and exports, petroleum subsidies and the management of both the port and the free zone in Aden.
“All of these things need attention by the government if there is going to be any employment creation,” said Hindle.