The Yemeni parliament began yesterday [Dec. 10] to review a draft law designed to combat the harmful effects of Qat, classified by the World Health Organization as a narcotic, in an attempt to reduce its use among children, women and the elderly.
Qat is often smuggled to Kenyan communities in the West, especially in Britain, where it is sold in well-known areas of London. Yemen's parliament issued a statement declaring that the proposed law seeks to consolidate and coordinate official and popular efforts to reduce the incidence of Qat use and to raise social awareness of the negative health, economic, educational, social and moral effects that arise from chewing it. It will also attempt to protect children, youth and women from developing a dependence on Qat.
A report released this past October revealed that Yemenis spend nearly $4 billion per year on Qat, equivalent to 778 billion Yemeni Riyals. This sum includes the cigarettes, water, soft drinks and all the other requirements of Qat sessions since, as the study notes, around seven million Yemenis chew Qat and smoke cigarettes while doing so.
The law the parliament is seeking to pass would seek to protect Yemeni society from the dangers of excessive Qat use, while gradually introducing measures to address those dangers and their consequences. This is to be accomplished by gradually putting a halt to the cultivation and abuse of Qat, as well as by offering suitable financial compensation and technical training to Qat farmers who abandon the crop.
The reason Qat cultivation has spread across wide swaths of Yemen stems directly from the high profits from the trade.
According to the draft of the proposed law, social support and medical assistance will be provided in cases where individuals are suffering from illness resulting from Qat consumption. People will be encouraged to cease using Qat, whether gradually or immediately.
Also according to the draft law, they will be provided with counseling and guidance, as well as a clear explanation of the dangers of excessive Qat use. It will guarantee economic alternatives to Qat and provide for the cultivation of other varieties of plants.
The Yemeni Ministry of Agriculture considers Qat to be a real threat to the country's farmland. It notes indications that coffee cultivation has declined significantly during the last five years, whereas the amount of farmland allotted to Qat cultivation has increased by a factor of 18 in the last 30 years.
The amount of land used for Qat cultivation has been estimated at 250,000 hectares, consuming around 128 million cubic meters of Yemen's total water resources. Yemen's available water resources are estimated at around 1 billion cubic meters of clean water.
Qat is a plant that grows in Yemen and Ethiopia and is widely believed to have originated in the latter and migrated to the former during the 15th century. It is also grown in the al-Fifa mountains. Its scientific name is catha edulis, from the Celastraceae family.
It grows in the form of shrubs between two and five meters in height. Its color is greenish brown with a slight degree of red, and its leaves are oval and pointed. The leaves are plucked and chewed while the plant is still young — no more than a few days or weeks old at the most. The first person to name the plant and scientifically classify it was the Swedish botanist Peter Foch School.
The origins of this plant are unknown. There have, however, been a number of studies that suggest it came originally from Ethiopia. The English Orientalist Richard Francis Burton wrote that it came to Yemen in the 15th century.
Qat has been observed to have the following side effects:
- Difficulty urinating, involuntary seminal discharge after urination, as well as erectile dysfunction
- Excess blood-sugar levels and increased risk of diabetes
- Reduced blood protein levels, which in turn stunts growth and can lead to users developing emaciated and weakened bodies
- Indigestion and loss of appetite
- Increased risk of mouth and jaw cancer
A number of Islamic religious scholars have forbidden Qat use. These include scholars from Al-Azhar, Saudi Arabia and above all, Sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Baz. Other scholars from the Shafi'i and Zaidi schools of jurisprudence have permitted its use, while stipulating that Islamic law nevertheless discourages it.
Nevertheless, one must distance oneself from every source of harm and, so far as possible, combat it. A number of governmental organizations have been established in Yemen to put an end to the spread of Qat and to raise awareness of its harmful effects.
International interest in Qat use has also grown significantly. Reports have been written and conferences held under the auspices of the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Arab Organization for Social Defense and the International Council on Alcohol and Drugs. The Gulf states have begun to prohibit travelers carrying Qat arriving from Yemen from entering their countries, and have imposed strict sanctions reaching up to six years in jail against those who have been proven to be Qat users or distributors.
At the same time that international interest in this subject has risen, so, too, has that of local Yemeni elites. They began mobilizing their forces as early as the beginning of the 1980s, in coordination with the first modern-day attempts to eliminate the phenomenon.
Videos showing children chewing Qat leaves have been spreading throughout the Internet. This addictive plant has been consumed by Yemenis for centuries. But in recent years, it has developed an exceedingly young following, extending even to children, who are often encouraged by their own parents to chew this mild narcotic.
Qat has long been a traditional custom in Yemeni society. Yemenis plant it for the Cathinone concentrated in its fragrant leaves, and which happens to be an internationally banned stimulant. Qat has been known in Yemen since the 13th century. A mention of it appears in Najib ad-Din-e-Samarqandi's Book of Causes and Symptoms, first published in 1237, as a medicinal cure for hunger and fatigue.
Qat is generally "chewed," as Yemenis put it, in sessions where the chewers attempt to achieve a sensation often described as similar to that of ingesting a large quantity of caffeine, or a small quantity of cocaine.
According to the World Bank, the Qat sector comprises six percent of Yemen's' GDP and consumes around 14% of the country's manual-labor force. It consumes 30% of the country's irrigation water allocated to agriculture.
According to the World Bank's 2006 survey, 72% of male Yemeni respondents said they consumed Qat, as compared with 33% of Yemeni women. According to the same poll, it appears that Yemenis normally first consume Qat in adolescence, between the ages of 16 and 24. But local observers have indicated to us that today, one often finds children addicted to Qat. Encouraging this phenomenon is the absence of laws proscribing Qat or specifying a legal minimum age for its use.
Previously, it was considered very shameful for children to use Qat. But over the course of the last decade, Yemen has seen a marked increase in Qat use among children.
Parents generally pay for their children to buy Qat in social gatherings like weddings and funerals; I have personally witnessed a child no older than nine years old chewing Qat in front of his father at his friend's wedding.
The sight so distressed me that I felt compelled to ask the father why he was so lenient in this regard. He simply responded that, "Qat is the mark of a man."
Qat is not the prerogative of some social groups to the exclusion of others, given the cheap prices that render it affordable for everyone. And as local journalists have noted, Qat is normally sold in the form of small bundles costing around 50 US cents.
As for children who chew Qat, they are generally working while they do so, particularly since it is widely believed among Yemenis that Qat enhances performance at work. But many studies have shown a significant rise in gum cancer rates among those who chew Qat for extended periods.
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