TAIZ, 5 April 2011 (IRIN) - Mohammed Munif's three daughters were stunned by the sight of their teacher bleeding from the head after being hit by a stone during a protest, and further traumatized when their 12-year-old brother Ahmad was hit by a stray bullet in Yemen's highland city of Taiz on 3 April.
“I was on my way back from school when the police were firing at protesters in the neighbourhood," said Ahmad, who was receiving treatment at a local clinic. "A stray bullet hit me on my back below my neck.”
Still wearing his blood-stained uniform, Ahmad said the bullet was fired as security forces used live ammunition to disperse an anti-government protest heading towards the presidential palace.
For the three girls, aged 7-11, the incident has worsened their fears. “My eldest daughter Sarah saw her female teacher bleeding from her head after `thugs’ hurled stones at a female teachers’ protest last week,” 40-year-old Mohammed told IRIN. “Now, she is scared. She refuses to go to school without me escorting her."
Many other Yemeni children have been affected by the violence that has accompanied nationwide protests which began in February against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
School heads are concerned the escalating violence is adversely affecting not only students’ attendance, but behaviour and performance as well. “Children are becoming more aggressive and have a higher tendency to fight," Jamila al-Mujahid, principal of the Sana’a-based Muadh Ibn Jabal School, told the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
"I found political slogans painted on some children’s arms," she added. "Kids are not used to seeing and experiencing such violence. What is going on now is a crime against childhood.”
Zaeem al-Maqtari, deputy principal of Omar al-Mukhtar School in Taiz city, told IRIN: "The road to our school has become risky due to frequent violent confrontations between government troops and protesters - and there has been poor student attendance in our school as a result.”
Some 20 children killed
According to local NGO Seyaj Organization for Childhood Protection (SOCP), at least 22 children were killed and more than 200 injured during the protests in March 2011.
UNICEF puts the total number of children killed since the protests began at 19. "This is an estimated 20 percent of the total number of casualties and is absolutely alarming," said George Abu-Zulof, a UNICEF child protection specialist.
Of the 52 people shot dead during a massive crackdown on protesters in front of Sana’a University on 18 March, at least two were children - killed about 250 metres from their home. On 28 March, 15-year-old Mohib Abdullah Hussein was killed by security forces in front of his father in Taiz Street in Sana’a.
SOCP accused the police of taking “advantage of the state of emergency currently enforced in the country” to commit abuses against children. Contacted for comment, officers at Sabaeen police station which is responsible for security in the neighbourhood where Mohib was killed, told IRIN the incident was under investigation. The perpetrators, they added, had not yet been identified.
Samir al-Mathaji, general secretary of the NGO My Childhood Organization, speaking to the Yemen Observer newspaper, accused various political organizations, including the six-party opposition coalition known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and the ruling General People’s Congress party (GPC), of using children in demonstrations.
“This is considered a breach of all international conventions on child rights, since children are not aware of the purposes of these demonstrations,” he said, urging the leaderships of the “Youth Revolution”, JMP, and government-aligned forces not to allow children to join protesters.
SOCP Chairman Ahmad al-Qurashi said some parents had also sent their children to participate in demonstrations. “They are unaware that they are exposing them to risk and increasing their vulnerability to fatal dangers,” he said.
Last month, Education Minister Abdul-Salam al-Jawfi warned that the government would punish any person involving children in protests, calling upon all to respect schools. “We will not be lenient with those irresponsible individuals attempting to undermine the educational process,” he said, following reports that some protesters in Aden had threatened to burn down schools if teachers and pupils refused to join the protests.
On 2 April, some local human rights groups also announced they would take legal action against protesters for using children in political marches. They urged the Human Rights Council in Geneva to look into the case.