Nearly 300,000 rural Yemeni children work in agriculture [Archives:2007/1059/Business & Economy]

June 14 2007

By: Amel Al-Ariqi
Nine-year-old Zaid Al-Taweeli wakes up every day at 5 a.m., no matter if it's warm or cold. It doesn't matter if the sun's rays have appeared or darkness still shrouds his small village west of Sana'a. But it's very important to be at his father's farm by 7 a.m.

He knows it's still rather early before he must leave, but he also realizes there are many things he must do before going to the farm. For example, he has to accompany his two sisters to fetch water from the pond located 45 minutes from their home. Sometimes they must go two or three times in the early morning to bring the water, which will be used only during the daytime. He then can eat his breakfast and go directly to the fields.

“My five brothers and I are used to working in the fields from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. doing planting, watering, spraying herbicides and insecticides, cultivating and harvesting, depending on the season and the crop,” Al-Taweeli explains.

“We're also cooperating with our father to market our crops, which are qat, grapes and vegetables. Many times, I go with my father to the market in Sana'a. He gives me a certain amount of crops, telling me the cost to offer consumers, and then leaves me in the market.”

Al-Taweeli is one of 292,000 Yemeni children working in the agricultural sector, according to a study the Social Affairs and Labor Ministry estimating 624,000 children working in Yemen. The study found that 97 percent of such children working in the agricultural sector receive no money for their labor because they work for their own families, while only 3 percent earn “trivial amounts.” Fifty-five percent work in agriculture and crafts while the remainder are venders in public spaces.

Poverty, low family income and the involvement of family members in agriculture are the prime factors for children working, according to the study, which stressed that rural Yemeni parents prefer sending their children to work in the fields instead of sending them to school. Forty percent of such children don't go to school, while 60 percent attend irregularly.

“I was in second grade when my father ordered me to leave school, saying he needed me on the farm after one of my brothers was paralyzed,” Al-Taweeli recalls, having no idea why his 10-year-old brother became sick.

However, an official field study by the Social Affairs and Labor Ministry exposed that Yemeni children working in the agricultural sector are subject to numerous infections and diseases. The study, involving three governorates (Sana'a, Al-Beidha and Dhamar), mentioned that 45 percent of such children suffer dermatitis, 30 percent have potentially blinding ophthalmia, 20 percent have intestinal diseases and 5 percent have epilepsy.

The study attributed the reasons for such diseases to misuse of herbicides and insecticides because many children don't use any type of protection while spraying plants with insecticides. They unconsciously mix these poisons without consulting the instructions written on the containers. Direct and constant exposure to dust also makes such working children easy prey for respiratory diseases like asthma, allergies, etc.

Most children working in the fields tend to work quickly, paying no attention to closing the spray; thus, some of the herbicides get onto their neck and shoulders giving them inflammations in the form of burns.

According to the study, 56 percent of children who spray such poisons are between ages 8 and 10, while 90 percent of children from these rural regions chew qat that's polluted by herbicides.

Like many other children, as well as their parents, Al-Taweeli has no idea about the U.N.'s “Convention on the Rights of the Child.” He also didn't know that the Yemeni government has passed national legislation restricting child work, as well as collaborated with several child labor organizations, both local and international, in an effort to alleviate this problem.