Oxfam is calling on the Australian Government to commit further humanitarian assistance to the crisis in Yemen when countries meet today in Geneva, as it’s been revealed conflict, rising food prices and plummeting incomes are forcing people to resort to desperate measures to stave off hunger.
Since the escalation in conflict in 2015, food prices in Yemen have soared while household incomes have plummeted, pushing the cost of basic foods beyond the reach of many and leaving ten million people one step away from famine.
Oxfam spoke to families in Amran governorate in the north who, hungry and isolated after fleeing their homes, have been forced to marry off their daughters – in one case as young as three years old – to buy food and shelter to save the rest of the family.
Oxfam’s Yemen Country Director Muhsin Siddiquey said that although early marriage had long been a practice in Yemen, marrying off girls at such an early age in desperation to buy food was shocking. He said younger girls were usually spared consummating the marriage until they had reached 11 years old, but before that were made to do household work in their husband’s home.
Nine-year-old Hanan used to go to school but since she was married, she has had to stop.
“My mother-in-law keeps beating me, and when I run away back to my father’s house, my father beats me again for running away. I don’t want to be married. I just want to go back to school,” Hanan said.
Hanan’s parents, who also married off her three-year-old sister, said they knew marrying off their daughters at such a young age was wrong, but felt they had no choice because the dowry paid in return was the only way of keeping the rest of the family alive.
Mr Siddiquey said that as the war had gone on, people’s means of coping with devastating levels of hunger had become more and more desperate.
“They’re being forced to take steps that blight their children’s lives now and for decades to come,” Mr Siddiquey said. “This is a direct result of a man-made humanitarian catastrophe caused by the conflict. Only an end to the conflict can halt the downward spiral that is forcing people to take desperate measures.”
Fighting has forced many families to flee to isolated areas that lack basic infrastructure with no schools, water networks, proper sewage disposal systems or health centres. Many of them are living in small tents or mud houses that offer little protection against sun, rain or freezing temperatures during winter nights. With no income and limited job opportunities, many families can’t afford enough food and resort to skipping meals, eating only bread and tea, buying food on credit, or begging.
In surveys late last year of people in Taiz in southern Yemen, who had received assistance from Oxfam, 99 per cent said the adults in the family had reduced how much they ate to give more food to their children and 98 per cent had cut down the number of meals they were eating every day. More than half said they had borrowed food from friends or relatives. Almost two thirds of people said they had taken on debt. In almost all cases this was to buy food, medicine or water.
The Australian Government has provided $23 million of aid to the humanitarian effort in Yemen since April 2017. However, reports last week confirmed the Australian Government has provided $36 million to support a Canberra manufacturer’s development of a weapons system that has been sold to Saudi Arabia – which is accused of committing war crimes against civilians in Yemen – potentially fueling the war while Yemenis starve.
Oxfam Australia is demanding a halt to Australian defence exports to Saudi Arabia and other parties to the Yemen conflict and calling on the Australian Government to commit further assistance for the ongoing emergency response, especially multi-year funding, and continue to use diplomatic channels to support efforts to establish a genuinely inclusive peace process.
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Notes for editors
Case studies of families affected by hunger in Yemen are available online. All the children’s names have been changed.
Oxfam’s response: Since July 2015, Oxfam has reached more than 3 million people in nine governorates of Yemen with water and sanitation services, including providing water by truck, repairing water systems and delivering filters and jerry cans, as well as building toilets and providing cash assistance and food vouchers.