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FOCUS June 2022 Volume 108

Child Soldiers in the Armed Conflict in Yemen

Mwatana for Human Rights

Yemen witnesses an internal armed conflict that involves hundreds, and maybe thousands, of child soldiers. Persistent reports and information from the human rights sector indicate that the number of recruited soldiers is continuously rising in Yemen, primarily because this poor and war-torn country presents a fertile ground for the expansion of this phenomenon. They also report the diversified child soldier recruitment methods and mechanisms, and the deepening negative societal effects of this recruitment.

Mwatana for Human Rights conducted a study on child recruitment and the use of child soldiers in the armed conflict in Yemen in September 2019. The study is the first of its kind devoted to the phenomenon of child recruitment, examining its causes, mechanisms, direct effects and possible future directions.

The study covered nineteen governorates in Yemen including Sanaa city: Sanaa, Amran, Sa'adah, Dhamar, Hajjah, Al-Mahweet, Raimah, Al-Jawf, Hodeidah, Taiz, Aden, Ibb, Lahj, Abyan, Marib, Shabwah, Al-Baidha and Hadramout. The sample cases were selected from these governorates taking into account the characteristics of child recruitment, its dimensions and the selected cases included all the parties involved in child recruitment, namely: Ansar Allah (the Houthi armed group), the Yemeni army affiliated with the internationally recognized government, forces loyal to the internationally-recognized government, forces affiliated with the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed Southern Transitional Council, the Joint Forces led by Tariq Saleh (the nephew of the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh), Yemeni army brigades affiliated with the Saudi/UAE-led coalition stationed in the southern Saudi borders, and Ansar Al-Sharia.

Causes of Child Recruitment

Economic conditions are a major cause of child recruitment in the armed conflict in Yemen. Poverty often compels some Yemeni families to allow their children to participate in the conflict to support their minimum, necessary survival needs, or in order to increase the family's utterly limited income. There are also some cases where children themselves join the army because of the hardship of living under poverty and the inability of their families to provide for their personal needs. Economic reasons account for 40.7 percent of the causes for child recruitment based on the study sample.

Social reasons (which account for 37.8 percent) play an important role in driving child recruitment. Yemen is considered a low-educated country with widespread illiteracy. Influence and social pressure, based on widespread social norms that normalize and further child recruitment, also drive many children to join military units of the different parties to the conflict. For example, there exist social norms which advocate that children be viewed as capable of taking responsibility, including carrying arms and fighting. Political and ideological reasons, on the other hand, accounted for 14.1 percent of the interviewees' cited causes of child recruitment. These included ideological allegiance to the recruiting party, as well as political and ideological affiliation to and/or support for a particular political issue. The desire to carry and use weapons and to imitate adults who participate in the war was found to be the least significant cause, only cited by 7.4 percent of the sample.

Although these reasons vary in terms of importance, they all play an influential role.

It would be difficult to ascribe the phenomenon of child recruitment to one single cause--in many cases, multiple causes, or push factors, were at play. For example, not all poor families allow or encourage their children to fight. In other words, if the poverty factor is not combined with another factor, such as social pressure from relatives and friends, it may not necessarily lead to child recruitment. The co-occurrence of both economic and social push factors was seen in a large percentage of children recruited who cited economic reasons.

Likewise, causes for child recruitment vary by different warring parties. Economic reasons, for instance, played a less important role in recruiting children into Ansar Allah (Houthi) forces than social reasons and the reverse for the national army affiliated with the internationally recognized government, the forces loyal to the government, the UAE-backed forces of the Southern Transitional Council, the forces affiliated with the Saudi/UAE-led coalition and the forces of Tariq Saleh. One potential explanation for this is that economic expectations--in terms of pay and other material benefits--from both the child and his family when recruited by Ansar Allah (Houthi) forces are relatively less than those for other forces. For this reason, the Ansar Allah (Houthi) group depends on its social influence as well as ideological and political factors more than other recruiting parties, with the exception of Ansar Al-Sharia, whose child recruits are mainly influenced by ideological factors.

Patterns and Mechanisms of Child Recruitment

Compulsory child recruitment (i.e., recruiting by force) accounted for 55.8 percent of the sample and can be regarded as the prevailing pattern of child recruitment. This includes recruiting children while threatening the family, abducting children and recruiting them without their family's consent. Voluntary recruitment (i.e., with family authorization) accounted for 44.2 percent of the sample cases, a relatively high percentage compared to compulsory recruitment. "Voluntary" recruitment, however, includes instances where families felt compelled to allow their children to be recruited due to deteriorating economic conditions, social influence or ideological mobilization. Children are not often recruited individually. 80 percent of the sample of the present study involved collective/group recruitment. In other words, recruitment was carried out through collective mobilization in small and large groups, suggesting how important social influence among children is in this phenomenon.

The parties to the conflict assigned people from different social groups to recruit children and to make it more attractive to them, such as mobilizing supervisors, children's relatives and friends and, to lesser degree, parents and brothers. Different parties followed different mechanisms to recruit children. Ansar Allah (Houthi armed group) promoted the idea of 'Jihad' to influence children, whereas the army of the internationally recognized government and other forces often recruited children by offering financial benefits.

Conflict and Recruitment Dynamics

Child recruitment has taken an upward trend in the conflict, i.e., recruitment increases as the conflict continues. Children play an important role in fighting and providing security for the warring parties. A large percentage of children have been killed (31.6 percent) from the overall sample of those recruited, demonstrating a high level of reliance upon children for fighting and security tasks. This in turn indicates at least part of the reason why parties to the conflict continue recruiting child soldiers - their participation is viewed as considerably important to all parties.

There is an ongoing debate on the phenomenon of child recruitment in Yemeni society. There are some conflicting trends related to this phenomenon during the continuing conflict. Despite the fact that child recruitment has a tendency to rise, 11.6 percent of families which agreed to have their children recruited changed their position and had their children returned back to the family. These families took their children back for several reasons, including fear for their children's lives (especially as fighting escalated) and improvement in household income. 17.19 percent of the recruited children left their units for different reasons which had nothing to do with pressures experienced by their families. People's posture towards recruitment (such as after being exposed to bad recruiting practices) can change based on changes in social statuses and the dynamics of the conflict. Moreover, economic intervention for families whose children have been recruited also appears able to reduce the magnitude of the phenomenon and impact its course in a positive way.

Violations against Recruited Children and Family's Reactions

Child recruitment is considered a violation of national and international law. It also exposes children to dangers and abuses, including death, injury, rape and sexual violence. Recruited children have also been subjected to harsh conditions, had severe bodily injuries and been maltreated. The study shows that 68.4 percent of children recruited in the sample suffered from different dangers and abuses by parties to the conflict, including being killed during confrontations with the other party, abduction, rape and sexual violence.

The reactions of children's families towards the dangers to which their children were exposed (specifically their deaths) were generally muted due to constraints which neither offer opportunities for them to express their stance openly nor allow them to take legal action in the case of violations due to lack of effective legal mechanism in the midst of the conflict. The majority of families held recruiting parties responsible for dangers or abuses to which their children were exposed, while 30 percent of the families blamed the party that directly caused the suffering of the recruited child (for example, the opposing party if the child was killed during fighting).

Direct Effects of Child Recruitment

There are many negative effects of recruiting child soldiers. Three major negative effects that came out of the study are highlighted. School dropout is one of the main negative effects of this phenomenon. 90.5 percent of the recruited children were school boys prior to recruitment.These children dropped out of school believing that recruitment would provide them future economic opportunities (such as getting a permanent job in the military) which could not be attained by continuing their education. Moreover, child recruitment results in changes in thought and behavior which impact children's manner of thinking about the future on the one hand and dealing with family and society, on the other, for example, acquiring ideas from the recruiting party and attempting to take on new roles inconsistent with their age. Another major negative effect of child recruitment is the increased number of people carrying weapons in society. 69.5 percent of the recruited children did not carry weapons prior to recruitment. However, they now carry weapons, including in areas where arms proliferation was not common.

Child Soldiers Recruitment - A Future Outlook

According to the study's findings, the majority of recruited children are eager to leave their units in cases of improved living conditions of their family. On the contrary, only 18.9 percent of the recruited children expressed interest in continuing with their units. 15.1 percent of the recruited children answered "I do not know" when asked whether they would leave their units.

Given that the majority of recruited children wanted to leave their units if living conditions of their family improved, the economic factor appears as an essential factor in determining the evolution of the phenomenon. Thus, improvement in the economic sphere is likely to limit the expansion of the child recruitment phenomenon. However, economic improvement of the whole population would not occur in the context of a continuing armed conflict. In other words, the positive impact of improved economic circumstances depends on ending the conflict. If the conflict does not stop, children are likely to continue being recruited, perhaps at increased rates, due to deteriorating living conditions.

In assessing the likelihood of the expansion of child recruitment through scoping interviews with non-recruited children living in an active recruiting environment, it was found that non-recruited children who expressed interest to be recruited accounted for 57.7 percent of those interviewed, whereas those who did not express interest were 42.3 percent, some of whom opposed the idea of child recruitment more broadly. The majority of non-recruited children appeared strongly inclined to be recruited and join the fighting. They believed that recruitment was a way to get money and gain weapons, which was a dream to realize for some of them.

Moreover, exposure to recruitment efforts is high, with the result that families' control of their children, especially those who are inclined to be recruited, has weakened. The study shows that exposure to recruitment among non-recruited children accounted for 53.8 percent of the sample. Likewise, 73.1 percent of the respondent parents revealed that they have concerns that their children might engage in recruitment of other children in the future without their knowledge.

Key Recommendations

Below are some key recommendations on how to address the child soldier issue:

1. Strengthen the resilience to recruitment for the child and the family
- Undertake a program of giving immediate assistance to families whose children have left fighting forces to help their (children's) reintegration into society, including by accommodating them in schools and paying special attention to girls who have been recruited and at risk of suffering from social stigma;

2. Adopt special measures for ending child recruitment in the course of
ending the conflict
- Ensure the collective release of children recruited by all parties to the conflict as a step towards paving the way to reach a political settlement, rather than postponing this step by treating it as a result of an intended settlement;

3. Strengthen the legal and institutional framework
- Operationalize the action plan signed by the government and the United Nations regarding the release of recruited child soldiers, stopping re-recruitment, seriously following up its implementation and creating mechanisms for the supervisory role of the United Nations;

4. Strengthen the local and international partnership for children
- Raise the level of cooperation between child rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society institutions working in Yemen, to strengthen monitoring and documentation of the phenomenon of child recruitment and to assist in conducting in-depth studies of the phenomenon at the level of the most enlisted governorates.

*This is a slightly edited version of the Executive Summary of the July 2020 report of Mwatana for Human Rights entitled Colored Coffins - Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in the Armed Conflict in Yemen, April 2013 - December 2018. Full report of the study available at

Mwatana for Human Rights (Mwatana) is a human rights organization that documents human rights violations in Yemen.

For more information, please contact: Mwatana for Human Rights (Mwatana), Dairi St. 0000 Sanaa, Yemen, ph +967 1 210 755; e-mail:;