Protecting children in the crossfire

Yemen, August 9, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Seven-year-old Hadiel was too scared to start first grade when she saw soldiers in her school. Heavily armed forces have been occupying schools in Yemen's capital and using them for battlegrounds since the 2011 political crisis. Photo: Mercy Corps

Seven-year-old Hadiel looked forward to starting first grade last year at Nusaybah school, in the heart of Yemen’s capital of Sana’a. But the presence of heavily armed soldiers and certainty of violence kept her home.

Over the past year, schools in Sana’a have been transformed from safe places to learn into war zones. Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East with a population of 23 million people, is still beset by fighting between insurgents and government forces. Nearly half of the population is facing food insecurity and almost one million children are acutely malnourished, according to the UN.

Schools affected by conflict

Hadiel’s school was in the crossfire. The neighborhood where it resides had been regularly bombed and shelled, and the school itself served as a base for soldiers.

On the first day of school, Hadiel remembers, “I came with my mother and I saw soldiers with guns in the schoolyard. I was so scared, I ran back to my house.”

Many students in Sana’a share Hadiel’s fears. During the height of the political crisis, soldiers brought weapons and fighting to nearby schools, oftentimes using classrooms as their duty station. Their presence intimidated both teachers and students, especially female students. Frequent street fights broke out nearby and intermittent gunfire kept many home.

A UNICEF assessment of nearly 100 schools in Sana’a last November recorded firefights near or in schoolyards — there were almost 50 incidents involving heavy ammunition, like missiles and bombs, and an equal number involving bullets and shrapnel. Eight children and two school staff were reportedly killed. Soldiers also recruited 22 children to join their ranks.

Establishing safe spaces for children

In response, Mercy Corps partnered with UNICEF to provide four new Child-Friendly Spaces in Sana’a’s schools — welcoming places where children can learn and play without fear and spend time away from the difficulties they face every day.

The five-month program aims to reach 3,387 children in four conflict-affected schools, including Hadiel’s, thanks to support from the UN Emergency Relief Fund.

Program lessons include instruction in nutrition, hygiene, landmines and the environment. Storybooks about children with disabilities are also provided to to teach kids about accepting others with differences. The project has raised awareness of the need for longer-term child protection strategies in schools. Our hope is that the program fosters a culture of peace and violence prevention.

Hadiel acted cautiously when she first arrived at her school’s Child Friendly Space, but slowly started to play with the balls and the jump rope. She saw other children running, drawing and playing games without fear, which made her hopeful.

“If there are no soldiers at the school when classes start,” Hadiel says now, “I want join the first grade.”

Experience Yemen's safe spaces: Use your mouse to navigate these panoramic photos from the school, taken by our team member Ali Alshami.

Inside the tent, we have kids seven years old and younger. The boys and girls are separated into different groups and they are working on art projects and puzzles, reading and playing music with the supplies we provided.

Inside the classroom, we have only girls ages eight and above doing sewing and other craft projects with female instructors.

In the school yard, children play sports with balls and other equipment provided by UNICEF.