An 11-month old baby girl suffering from severe acute malnutrition eats a nutritious peanut paste given by a Save the Children health worker in a camp for Internally Displaced People (IDP) in Lahj district, Yemen. Photo credit: Jonathan Hyams / Save the Children, Nov 2018.

Children are already starving to death in Yemen, where experts have warned of the "worst famine the world has seen in decades."

2.3 Million Children Are on the Brink of Starvation in Yemen 

Amidst the world's largest humanitarian crisis, an estimated 2.3 million children under five in Yemen are expected to go hungry or be on the brink of starvation by the end of 2021. 

Airstrikes continue, marking just one more way that Yemeni children are paying with their lives in a crisis they have no part in creating. For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens of children are starving to death and it’s entirely preventable. 

"The world must not accept that children continue to die from hunger, disease, and war," Xavier Joubert, Save the Children's Country Director for Yemen, said. "Hunger in Yemen is an entirely human-made legacy of this war, and the increase in child malnutrition levels around conflict lines shows the impact of this brutal conflict on children."

Claire Nicoll works for the Humanitarian Operations Team at Save the Children. During the summer of 2019, Claire lived and worked in Yemen. During her time there, she met many children, mothers and fathers whose stories have stayed with her. Here is one of them.

Pushed to the brink of starvation in Yemen

Today, we visited a health facility in rural Hajjah, northern Yemen. The facility was small and very remote, but there were still dozens of families waiting to see the doctor. In a country with a crippled health system, these facilities represent a desperately needed lifeline.

I met 18-month-old Leila* and her mother Rayah*, and their story is one that I know will stay with me. Leila is suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition – the deadliest form of extreme hunger that can easily claim the lives of young children. In Yemen, it often does.

When Rayah took Leila’s shirt off to be examined, I struggled to keep my expression neutral. I was shocked at how painfully thin she was.

A mother holds the legs of her 13-month-old child who is severely malnourished. The baby was treated for malnutrition in a Save the Children supported clinic. After his treatment ended, he and his family got displaced as conflict in their neighborhood escalated and it wasn’t safe to live there anymore. Photo credit: Mohammed Awadh / Save the Children, Oct 2018.

A mother holds the legs of her 13-month-old child who is severely malnourished. 

“What would you do – take one child to the hospital or feed the others?”

This is the question that Rayah asked when telling me about how the brutal four-year conflict has impacted her life. It shows the impossible choices many mothers in Yemen face every day. She didn’t take Leila to the health facility earlier, when recovery would be guaranteed, as the transport costs would have left her with no money to feed her other children.

Her husband, a teacher, hasn’t been paid in months and the family has survived on bread and tea – with tomatoes as an occasional treat – for two years.

Rayah has already lost two children, one from hunger and the other from cancer. She told me in a matter-of-fact tone that cancer was easier to bear, as the death was faster, and she felt less responsible.

I had no answer to her question.

One child dying from starvation is one child too many

I heard many stories like Rayah’s today.

Nobody I spoke to could remember eating fish or meat in the last year. Most of the mothers were skipping meals or even starving themselves just to feed their children, and many of them had become dangerously malnourished themselves.

They told me how their lives keep getting harder, how the conflict has robbed them of the ability to care for their own children. Obstructions on food imports and rocketing food prices have forced them to watch their children waste away, unable to do anything about it.

Save the Children recently found that some 85,000 children under 5 in Yemen may have died because of extreme hunger since the war began. Children who die in this way suffer immensely as their vital organ functions slow down and eventually stop. Now I can’t stop thinking about how many of the children I met are in this number, or soon will be.

Rayah said she used to have big dreams for the future, but now she just hopes Leila, her last surviving child, might live to see her second birthday.

The existence of health facilities like the one I visited drastically improve Leila’s chances, and there are many children who are alive because of the work that our teams do. But ultimately the conflict needs to end to ensure that children can survive. One child dying from starvation in Yemen is one child too many.

Yemen's hunger and famine crisis

A man-made famine in Yemen is looming. Food prices are now up to 200% higher than they were prior to the conflict. More than 16 million people in Yemen are already skipping meals nearly every day because they simply have no other choice.

The crisis has only been made worse by recently announced aid cuts, long-standing restrictions on humanitarian access, economic collapse, attacks on civilian infrastructure like schools and hospitals, and active fighting in heavily populated areas.

“If the UN’s predictions are correct," said Janti Soeripto, President and CEO of Save the Children, "the worst famine in decades could kill hundreds of thousands of children. We must do everything we can to prevent this from happening.” 

*Name changed for protection.

Save the Children has been responding to the crisis in Yemen since 2015. Despite the hunger, the poverty and the bombs, we will continue to fight for Yemen’s children. Learn more about our work in Yemen.


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