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Street children at increased risk of sexual abuse

[Yemen] Naif al-Ghuzzy, 11, has been selling newspapers on the busy streets of Sana'a for the past two years - one of up to 15,000 children working the streets of the capital, according to Yemen's government. [Date picture taken: 23/06/2007]
(David Swanson/IRIN)

Selling newspapers along the hot and busy streets of Sanaa, Naif al-Ghuzzy, 11, wants nothing more than to help his family. “My parents are alive and my father is a street vendor,” he said. Each day he gives the US$1 he earns to his mother and sleeps, before venturing out the next morning to do same.

But Naif - one of thousands of children working the streets of Yemen - is luckier than most.

Many children, mostly boys selling anything from water and sweets to fruit and tissues, have nowhere to go at night, making them particularly vulnerable to the risk of sexual abuse and exploitation.

There are no exact figures on how many children nationwide fall into this category. Of the 13,000-15,000 children estimated to be working on the streets of the capital, many come from remote rural areas, and are away from their families, making the likelihood of them having a safe and secure environment to return to at night particularly low.

Increased number of street children

“Over the past five years, we have seen an increase in the number of street children in Yemen and with it an increase in sexual abuse,” Wadah Shugaa, deputy manager of the Safe Childhood Centre in Sanaa, said, citing grinding poverty and violence at home as the primary causes.

The Safe Childhood Centre is the only centre of its kind which gives refuge to Sanaa’s burgeoning street children population. Funded by the Yemeni-based Al Saleh Social Foundation for Development, the centre, with a bed capacity of 150, already provides shelter to some 27 unwanted boys, more than half of whom are believed to have been sexually abused.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Many of the boys at the Safe Childhood Centre in Sanaa are feared to have suffered some form of abuse

“If they have been on the street for a long time, the chances of them being sexually abused is around 90 percent,” Shugaa said.

According to reports, boys as young as eight have been lured into the cars of strangers for as little as US$1, while others are sexually abused by older boys living rough on the street - a dire reminder of the vicious circle of abuse found throughout the world involving street children.

Yet the boys, generally brought into the centre by police or the centre’s own outreach programme, rarely divulge the abuse they have suffered.

“I never did those kinds of bad things, but I know others who have,” one 13-year-old boy at the centre whispered, glancing away from the peering eyes of other boys. “When you are hungry you do what you have to do,” he said, adding he knew of several occasions when a boy would be brought to a man’s home for a few days and routinely abused, before being let go.

“Yes, there are some bad boys doing bad things,” said another child at the centre who did not know his own age and who had been left on the streets by his mother to fend for himself after the death of his father in 1995.

Problem could worsen

Stories of such abuse are hardly new in Yemen. However, with continuing high poverty levels and the number of children forced to work on the streets increasing, specialists warn it could well worsen.

''If they have been on the street for a long time, the chances of them being sexually abused is around 90 percent.''

“It [sexual abuse] is a huge problem,” Dr Arway Yahya Al-Deram, executive director of Soul, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), working to support underprivileged children and, who has visited the centre on numerous occasions. “I heard horrible stories there,” she said.

As for those working at the centre, getting the boys to speak about their experiences can take years. “It takes time for us to get the boys to talk,” Shugaa said, citing the sense of shame and embarrassment many of the boys feel after being abused.

In denial

Sadly, however, it is not just the children who do not want to talk about the abuse. Given an acute lack of awareness, many of the country’s 20 million inhabitants are also in denial.

“It’s big problem, but one kept largely in the closet,” Maha Nagi Salah, chairwoman of Ebhar Foundation for Childhood and Creativity, another local NGO advocating children’s rights in Sanaa, told IRIN, citing the conservative nature of Yemeni society.

“People don’t want to talk about this problem - sometimes not even the government,” Shugaa added, a fact proving yet another challenge for the handful of NGOs now working to address the problem.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Driven by poverty, many boys in Sanaa have taken to the streets to earn a living for their families

However, according to Nafisa Al-Jaifi, general secretary of Yemen’s Higher Council for Motherhood and Childhood, the government was well aware of the issue, adding: “The discussion of children’s rights is now at a very high level.”

Most children working on the streets were coerced into doing so by their parents, Al-Jaifi told IRIN. She pointed out a draft amendment to Yemen’s 2002 child rights law which would result in parents being punished for taking their children out of school to work the street or beg.

“This has already been approved by the prime minister and the cabinet,” she said, adding that they were now working on building awareness among local law enforcement officials, as well as the community at large about the growing abuse problem children may face.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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