The coming to power of northern rebels in Yemen could derail moves to end the use of child soldiers in the country.
Last month the Houthi rebel group forced the government to resign and appointed a new parliament – which has been declared illegitimate by the UN.
The Houthi movement, like many Yemeni rebel groups, has long been accused of routinely using children in its ranks. A 2010 report from the UN found that “as many as half of the total number of fighters, from…the Al-Houthi rebels, are below 18 years of age.”
Leila Zerrougui, UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, said that Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi had pledged to help protect children from conflict in 2012 but has since appeared to reverse his position.
“In 2014, Al-Houthi has increased the recruitment of children as well as other grave violations against children,” she told IRIN. “I call on Al-Houthi to keep his engagement to shield children from the impact of conflict."
She added that the number of children killed or maimed in violence spiked last year.
Yemen is one of only eight countries in the world whose state militaries the UN says include children.
Last year Yemen signed up to an action plan to end the recruitment of children by the army. Yet with the Houthis having seized control of state institutions it is unclear if the action plan will continue or how much control they now have over the army.
Zerrougui said she was extremely concerned by recent events and urged all parties to respect the agreement. “Children need the protection promised by the action plan. They should not be involved in this conflict in any way, especially not as combatants or in support roles.”
Ahmed, 15, mans a barrier in the capital Sana’a. He insists he is not paid by the Houthis, but is a voluntary member of their so-called popular committees.
“They give us nothing but food and khat,” he said, referring to the stimulant chewed by many in the country.
He did, however, admit that he is hoping that now the Houthis have claimed control of the country, he will be rewarded for his service by being enrolled in the state’s army.
Julien Harneis, country head for UNICEF – a co-signatory to the action plan – said he was hopeful the Houthis would respect the agreement.
“We have no indication yet that the government will not honour its commitments. The Yemenis committed to that agreement irrespective of who comes [to power],” he stressed.
He added that they were increasingly concerned by the use of child soldiers by all major rebel groups. “We are worried that those children are manning checkpoints may have already come under attack or they may be on the frontlines in the fighting,” he said.
Ideology and economy
Ahmed Al-Qurashi, head of the Seyaj NGO that works to protect children in Yemen, said there were two main reasons that children agreed to fight.
“Some of the children are persuaded to join the militias under the pretext of jihad and this is applicable particularly to the Houthis and Muslim Brotherhoods,” he said. “[For others] during conflicts, people lose their livelihood sources, so children find themselves compelled to provide for their families.”
Sadiq, 14, fits into the first category. He said he joined the Houthis during clashes in the western city of Amran in July as he believes the group is fighting against America and Israel and their supporters in Yemen. Last week the American embassy base was ransacked following the withdrawal of its staff from the country.
“I joined Ansar Allah because they are fighting to free Yemen from the occupiers,” he said. He also insisted he was not being paid.
Al-Qurashi added that most of the children recruited are from areas where armed conflict is common such as Marib, Sa’ada, Al-Baidha, Aljawf, and Amran. He added, however, that recently militias – particularly the Houthis – have also started recruiting children from coastal and desert areas.
Lwa’e Al-Shami, a spokesman for the Houthis, denied that they formally conscripted children, insisting that many of those involved were simply seeking to volunteer to help bring peace to the country.
“We are not a military or security faculty to set particular standards for those who want to join the popular committees; people in their villages, tribes or neighborhoods gather and form their committees and you cannot come to say that this is accepted and this is refused because it is their area,” he said.
He confirmed that the popular committees located in the main streets and by important buildings are run by the Houthi leadership but those in smaller neighbourhoods are made up of local volunteers and added that the Houthis refuse to provide compensation for the families of those killed. “We do not give compensations like blood money or salary for the families of the martyrs because we do not have money to give them,” he said.
In areas taken over by Houthi fighters residents complain quietly of the demands put on them since the takeover.
“In the beginning of the Houthi domination on our tribe, [they] were very kind, helpful and never ask for anything, but later they started urging people to invite them for lunch, breakfast, and dinner meals as well as providing them with khat based on a schedule for the villagers or businessmen,” said Mohammed, 38, from Hashid tribe.
Al-Shami confirmed that some businessmen, traders, people of neighborhood, and villagers sometimes donate some food meals or aids for the militants. but denied they any coercion.