A boy totes a gun at an Al Houthi location. The United Nations verified a significant increase from 2013 of recruitment and use of children by warring parties in Yemen. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Children make up a third of fighters in the armed groups in conflict-wracked Yemen, according to a UN official, who also issued a warning about malnutrition levels in the country.

“We are seeing children in battle, at checkpoints and unfortunately among [those] killed and injured,” Julien Harneis, Unicef’s representative in Yemen, said during a stop in Geneva.

He said staff of Unicef and its partners had estimated that around 30 per cent of fighters in the armed groups were minors.

Unicef has confirmed that at least 77 children have been killed and 44 others injured since 26 March, and Harneis said the true toll was likely to be far higher.

As the conflict has intensified, more and more children are being drawn into the battle.

An exact figure of how many boys are fighting in Yemen’s conflict is hard to come by. According to some estimates, boys younger than 18 form nearly a third of Al Houthi militant’s force approximately 25,000 fighters. Most are aged between 12-17 years.

The United Nations verified the recruitment of 106 children in 2013, some as young as six years of age. According to the UN, Salafists recruited 57 boys to fight against Al Houthis, while 32 children were seen manning Al Houthi checkpoints.

The United Nations verified a significant increase from 2013 of recruitment and use of children, with a total of 156 boys recruited and used between the ages of 9 and 17. The majority (140) of cases were perpetrated by Al Houthi militants with a highly visible presence.

The United Nations observed and documented armed children manning checkpoints, being present on armed vehicles and guarding buildings.

Eleven boys between the ages of 16 and 17 were recruited and used by Islah-backed tribal militias aligned with the government or Salafists, all except two of them in the frontlines.

An additional four boys were verified as joining tribal armed groups in Al Bayda governorate.

The numbers of child casualties increased significantly from the previous reporting period, with 74 children (56 boys, 18 girls) killed and 244 (176 boys, 68 girls) maimed. Child casualties due to mines and other explosive devices more than doubled, with 10 children killed and 54 maimed.

Nine boys were detained by Al Houthi militants as they reportedly conducted “law enforcement operations”.

Six other incidents of detention by Al Houthi militants were also verified involving six boys. four of whom were detained for their alleged association with Islah, and one because of his father’s association with Islah.

The United Nations verified 35 attacks against schools. For example, all 10 schools attacked in Amanah Al Asimah governorate were destroyed during clashes that took place in September between Al Houthi militants and pro-government tribal militias.

The United Nations verified 13 attacks against hospitals by Al Houthi militants and forces allied with Yemeni ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, which severely hampered the provision of medical services. For example, on 21 January, a hospital in Al Dhalea district was shelled by Saleh’s forces, resulting in the death of a 45-day-old boy and injury to his two-year-old sister while they were trying to escape the shelling with their father.

Ninety-two schools were verified as being used for military purposes by armed forces and groups with the majority of schools being used by Al Houthi militants for providing accommodation or as weapons’ storage.

In response to that trend, the Ministry of Education and Governorate Education Offices, supported by the United Nations, established task forces on education in emergency, which vacated at least 25 schools used by Al Houthi militants.

In total, 43 denials of humanitarian access were verified. In a positive development, a United Nations staff member kidnapped by an unknown armed group was released in November after 13 months in captivity.

In May, the government of Yemen signed an action plan with the United Nations to end and further prevent the recruitment and use of children by Yemeni army forces. Within a month after the signing ceremony, follow-up mechanisms were established in accordance with the action plan. The draft constitution issued in January 2015 includes the prohibition of voluntary recruitment of all persons under the age of 18. The final version of a draft action plan to end the recruitment and use of children by Al Houthi militants was endorsed by their Human Rights and Civil Society Office, which was reportedly shared with the office of Abdul Malik Al Houthi, the Al Houthi leader. Since the eruption of violence in early 2015 all progress on actions plans and on ending violations has been put on hold.


Hundreds of thousands of children are used as soldiers in armed conflicts around the world. Many children are abducted and beaten into submission, others join military groups to escape poverty, to defend their communities, out of a feeling of revenge or for other reasons. In many conflicts children take direct part in combat. However, their role is not limited to fighting. Many girls and boys start out in support functions that also entail great risk and hardship.

One of the common tasks assigned to children is to serve as porters, often carrying heavy loads, including ammunition or injured soldiers. Some children act as lookouts, messengers, cooks or other routine duties. Girls are particularly vulnerable. They are often forced to serve as sexual slaves. Moreover, the use of children for acts of terror, including as suicide bombers, has emerged as a phenomenon of modern warfare.

Regardless of how children are recruited and of their roles, child soldiers are victims, whose participation in conflict bears serious implications for their physical and emotional well-being. They are commonly subject to abuse and most of them witness death, killing, and sexual violence. Many are forced to perpetrate these atrocities and some suffer serious long-term psychological consequences. The reintegration of these children into civilian life is a complex process.


Definition of a child soldier:

A child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes.

Prohibition under International Law

Human rights law declares 18 as the minimum legal age for recruitment and use of children in hostilities. Recruiting and using children under the age of 15 as soldiers is prohibited under international humanitarian law – treaty and custom – and is defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court. Parties to conflict that recruit and use children are listed by the Secretary-General in the annexes of his annual report on children and armed conflict.