March 14 was an ill-fated day for Zu Yazen Sadeq Nasser, a 13-year-old Yemeni sixth grader. On his way to school, located in the Khormaksar neighborhood in the city of Aden, Nasser was abducted and brought to the southern province of Abyan, a stronghold of the "Sharia Supporters,” a group with links to Al Qaeda.
Child abduction is an issue which has been exacerbated by the chaotic security situation that has been plaguing Yemen for over a year now. Child abduction in Yemen is no longer limited to taking children across borders to abuse them sexually and force them to beg in neighboring countries. It has now rather become closely tied with a negative facet of Yemeni culture, in which children, especially boys, are perceived as adults.
Children in Yemen have always been the victims of revenge crimes. This in part results from the lack of domestic legislation related to offenses against children. Despite the fact that Yemen has ratified international conventions on children’s rights, this has had no direct impact on the situation on the ground. Children are still used in the settling of public conflicts and individual disputes, growing up in an environment which urges them to be "men" and encourages them to take up arms.
Given the absence of the state in Yemen, and due to weak and sparsely applied laws, child abduction has become a common tactic with which to carry out extortion, ransom, etc.
Zu Yazen’s father said that his son was kidnapped because of an old dispute over a house. He explained that "the issue reached the courts and the ruling was in my favor. However, the adversaries could not tolerate the outcome." The kidnappers, who demanded a ransom of three million Yemeni riyals, gave up their demands soon after the authorities intervened. They contacted a prominent regional figure, who then ordered the release of the child without ransom.
The targeting of children in conflicts seems to be embedded within Yemeni society, and has political roots. Back then, what was known as the “system of hostages” prevailed under the reign of Zaydi Imams who ruled North Yemen until 1962. Tribal Sheikhs were obliged to offer their children as hostages to the palace of the Imam as a sign of loyalty and a guarantee against rebellion.
Popular Yemeni Folklore is ridden with stories of children who suffered while they were held hostage. Al-Rahina (The Hostage), a novel written by the late author Zayd Muti', discusses the integration of hostage children in the palace of the Imam, and how they were abused by the palace women. Lawyer Najib Qahtan, director of the Ta'izz branch of the Siyaj Organization for Child Protection, said that in the city of Ta’izz alone, his organization has uncovered 34 sexual child harassment and rape cases since the outbreak of popular protests early last year. According to Qahtan, the inefficiency of the Yemeni legal system is one of the causes of the widespread child abuse.
In light of the paralysis of state institutions, crimes that affect children and women have been turned into mere numbers within the records of organizations charged with monitoring abuses. But monitoring is not a sufficient practice in a community which looks down on the disclosure of this kind of crime and conceals their statistics. Many crimes go unreported.
The Houthis in Saada had been known to recruit child soldiers in their battles against the state. What’s more, the first armored division and the Republican Guard were found guilty by international and local organizations of recruiting child soldiers.
Some parents buy their children games involving weapons, explosives and fireworks. Others encourage them to wear the Yemeni dagger (Jambiya), to drive a car or to carry their fathers’ weapon. These are all factors that are revealing of the role the Yemeni environment plays in the promotion of a traditional perception which puts children and adults on an equal footing. This kind of dynamic makes children "grow early," as stated in a novel that addressed the involvement of children in the war between Republicans and Royalists in the sixties.