By Ahmed Al-Haj
Associated Press / January 24, 2012
SANAA, Yemen—A year of Yemen's turmoil has exacerbated the number of malnourished children under the age of five to around 750,000, UNICEF said Tuesday, appealing to the government and the international community to help develop the country's infrastructure to tackle the problem.
In some parts of this country of 20 million people, the number of children suffering from malnutrition has doubled from what it was in 2000, said Maria Calivis, the UNICEF director for Middle East and North Africa.
Calivis told The Associated Press the figure crosses the "emergency threshold," an international standard calling for urgent action.
"The number itself says it's a crisis," Calivis said. "The crisis can be an invisible one because it is (mostly) outside, in remote areas."
Calivis met with the country's new prime minister and Cabinet officials who she said were "not only surprised but shocked" by the figure.
Yemen has for years experienced localized insurgencies, and the number of displaced people has increased during the year-long uprising against authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh, inspired by other Arab Spring revolts.
According to UNICEF, 60 percent of internal refugees or, around 300,000, are Yemeni children.
Before the uprising against Saleh, Yemen was already the most impoverished country in the Arab world.
UNICEF said that in the capital of Sanaa alone, 82 schools were attacked by armed forces or groups since the beginning of protests early last year.
Yemen's Education Ministry said at least 54 schools had been occupied by military forces and militias from both the pro and anti-Saleh camps during the height of clashes.
Daily protests demanding Saleh's ouster and mounting international pressure eventually forced the president to sign a deal to pass power to his vice president. Saleh flew to Oman late Sunday in the first stop of a trip that is to eventually take him to the U.S. for medical treatment, some two months after signing the power transfer accord. He was badly burned during a June attack on his compound in Yemen.
Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen has taken advantage of the political instability of the past year to increase its foothold throughout parts of the country, particularly in the south.
The militant takeover of main towns in Abyan province forced over 100,000 people to flee the violence.
Despite the political and security upheaval, Calivis said children must remain a priority for the new government.
"There are obviously many competing priorities and there will be always be in the future competing priorities, but ours is an appeal that protecting your children will also ensure security, peace and economic recovery in the long run," she said.
Separately from the violence gripping Yemen, malnutrition resulting from waterborne diseases, unsanitary conditions and little access to vitamin-rich food has put 500,000 more children in danger of dying or suffering from physical disabilities due to malnutrition.
UNICEF has vowed to spend 140 million dollars in the next four years in Yemen, but Calivis said it is "a drop in the bucket when you look at the needs."
"UNCIEF plays an important part, but it needs government commitment and international commitment in order to make a difference," she said.