Working Children in Yemen: A Generation Prone to Disaster [Archives:1999/49/Law & Diplomacy]
Final in a Series
Mohammed Hatem Al-Qadhi,
The Juvenile Welfare Act, No. 24, of 1992 views child beggars as delinquents subject to detention, ostensibly for special care.
Although a number of the women and children begging on the streets of Sana’a are descended from the traditional servant class, or are returnees from Saudi Arabia we find also that these working children (whether on the street or elsewhere) are usually not paid for their work. Children working in the countryside in agriculture work without wages. I met many working children in restaurants, on streets and at construction sites. Most of them told me that they came to the city either to help their fathers cover the family expenses or because their fathers passed away and they have to cover the expenses of their mothers, brothers and sisters. They collect their salaries at the end of each month and send them to their families’ villages. This means that these children are draining off their energy for their families. In this way, they will continue working until their brothers and sisters grow up, and these working children will have spent a lot of their lifetimes doing nothing for their own futures. Not only that, but they will have had no access to education and are likely to be illiterate.
The Plight of Juvenile Delinquents
The pressure of urbanization and the concomitant breakdown of traditional family and community support structures, increased incidence of poverty and high rates of youth unemployment have combined to create a rise in the rate of juvenile delinquency in recent years, although the total numbers in conflict with the law appears still to be generally low in Yemen. Some children come from villages to the cities searching for jobs. Sometimes they fall victims to bad habits. They are sometimes put in prison with criminals, homosexuals and other law-breakers. In this way, they get affected by this group and thus become delinquents.
Although a Juvenile Welfare Act was passed in 1992, the government lacks the resources to effectively implement and administer it. The Act itself also suffers a number of major shortcomings, the most important of which includes its failure to set a minimum age of criminal responsibility and the fact that its definition of delinquency encompasses a variety of non-criminal activities. Article 3 of the act states “The instances in which a juvenile is deemed to be delinquent include: (a) if he is found begging, (b) if he associates with delinquents or rogues, (c) if he habitually runs away from home or is a regular truant from school, and (d) if he regularly engages in acts characterized by licentiousness, depravity or moral corruption.
One of the most important provisions of the act, the establishment of a network of juvenile courts in each governorate, has not been implemented, meaning that children must face trial in adult courts with judges who have little or no knowledge or training in juvenile law. Moreover, specialized training programs do not exist for those in direct contact with juvenile detainees including: police officers, prison workers and staff of juvenile correction centers. Juvenile correction centers are too scarce in relation to juvenile detainees and generally lack effective rehabilitative programs. We also find that juveniles who are arrested and detained are frequently subjected to serious rights violations. Most are arrested and detained for reasons relating to social hardship rather than criminality. They may be held for two or three months before being brought before the court and are often subjected to mistreatment during arrest and interrogation. They may await trial in the same prisons as adults. Children detained, but not convicted of any criminal offense, may be kept in detention in the same premises as convicted persons. They are usually without lawyers to defend them and are completely unaware of their own rights. Sentences can be as long as six or seven years.
Juveniles in conflict with the law who can not be accommodated in juvenile “houses of direction” must serve their sentences in adult prisons. Conditions in these prisons are generally very harsh. A lack of adequate hygiene and overcrowding in the prisons give rise to illnesses. They offer no education or other rehabilitative services. Social workers are nonexistent. Systems of prisons inspection and supervision are weak or nonexistent, leaving the detained juveniles vulnerable to abuse. Children can be found in almost all of Yemen’s prisons. In 1996, for instance, child prison inmates included around 60 boys and 13 girls in the Sana’a Central prison and about 40 boys in the Hodeidah jail.
The situation for female juvenile detainees is by far the worst. There are no juvenile reform facilities for female juvenile delinquents, and therefore they must serve their sentences in prisons under harsh conditions alongside adult female prisoners. No education or rehabilitative services are available for them. A lack of effective control and their low social status makes them particularly vulnerable to various forms of abuse at the time of their arrest, during pretrial detention and while serving their prison sentences.
Reports indicate that most children are put in prison without having committed a crime. Most of them are put in prison because of family problems.
Another detrimental problem faced by working children in general is this. From a psychological point of view, these children are subjected to various kinds of psychological problems. Their minds become overloaded with thoughts about the future and other unknowns which their tiny minds can not bear. That is, they squeeze their minds and try to think and behave like grown-ups which, without any room for doubt, disturbs their physiological health very much. Certainly, this affects their normal development and growth. Not only that, but scientific studies also show that working children die prematurely. Moreover, working children always feel insecure and therefore they look pale and worried. In this way, we produce people who are mentally, psychologically and even physically handicapped and are unable to serve their nation properly.
What is to be done?
I believe that it has now become very clear how miserable the situation of children in Yemen, particularly working ones, is. The picture is scary and menacing.
As we have seen, economic pressures and hardships are the main factors pushing our children to work. The deteriorating economic conditions of the people, including the constant rise of prices have to be tackled. The government should work very hard to improve the standard of living of the people, because it is these economic conditions which pull many children from school.
It is a common belief that education is an important tool for development. It is education that generates sound people who can help in the development of their societies. As long as education is well-built and strong, its outcome becomes strong and vital. Therefore, our fragile educational system has to be restructured. The curriculum should be renewed to include syllabi that address the changing world and its evolution to attract the interest of children. More importantly, the government should pass a law that makes basic education compulsory. It should also impose fines against students who are truant from school. At the same time the government should make education a free service and not ask for the higher tuition fees which most of the parents in Yemen can not afford. The condition of the Yemen teacher should be improved. His salary should be increased so that he/she devotes himself/herself to the teaching process and not engage himself in extra work to improve his living conditions.
As vocational and technical education is vital for development, the government should pay more attention to the issue of this type of education. This education will generate students who are technically professional, able to produce and are active members of the society. Therefore, the government should open recreational centers to discover the skills of every child and accordingly polish them. In this way, we will have made education a tool for development and therefore there will be a relationship between the output of education and the input of development. In this respect, the government should provide our teachers with constant training to get them acquainted with everything new in the field of teaching. The question of female education, particularly in the countryside, should be considered with peeled eyes.
I believe that if such suggestions materialize, children will be more attracted towards schools and hence the number of truants and working children will go down. Otherwise, the future heralds a bad omen since illiteracy among our children will skyrocket.
The Ministry of Labor should issue a law that bans the work of children under the age of 18 years. Moreover, the current laws on children and juvenile delinquents should be enforced.
I think the government can not tackle all of these problems alone. Therefore, I suggest that the government, the private sector, charitable societies, and NGOs concerned with children and their rights should all contribute to solve or at least alleviate the problem of working children in Yemen. As child workers are mostly orphans or poor, the Ministry of Social Affairs should help in this respect. It should build recreational centers for such helpless creatures and provide them with food, health care and, above all, technical training to help them learn a profession. Poor families can be helped in a similar way. They should be provided with development projects of economic value. In other words, they should be trained to perform some kind of handicraft work to support themselves. I read in one of the newspapers that in Egypt the same thing has been done. So, we can benefit from their experience in this field.
Finally, we should all remember that children are the power-house of energy and future builders of any society. When these pillars are well-built and nourished, the society becomes well structured, strong and sound. Otherwise, these children become so fragile that they can not even crawl towards the future. A nation is strong as long as its future builders are strong and are able to speed up progress towards a better tomorrow, since they are a vital tool for change and development. Therefore, I call all the authorities and NGOs concerned to join hands to avoid a disastrous and tragic end of a whole generation.
1-Children and Women in Yemen
A Situation Analysis, Summery 1998
2-Working Children: A Closer Look
By: Sheena Crawfard, Ph.D.
Radda Barnen Yemen
4- Yemen Times, Vol.IX, Issue 11, 1999