Young children still face malnutrition, says UNICEF

Yemen still suffers from one of the highest rates in the world for poor nutrition among children under five years old, according to a recent report by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

“Malnutrition is one of the main challenges in Yemen, where 46 percent – almost half – of the children are underweight,” said Naseem Ur-Rehman, communications coordinator at UNICEF's Sana'a office. “The magnitude is very serious, as underweight children are particularly vulnerable to diseases.”

According to the report, Yemen has made scant progress toward the UN’s “Millennium Development Goals”, aimed at eradicating extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. The study noted that the average annual rate of reduction for underweight children in Yemen between 1990 and 2004 was a mere minus 3.6 percent.

Naseem Ur-Rehman pointed to crushing poverty as the primary reason for the problem. According to government figures from 2003, around 42 percent of Yemen’s population of 20 million live below the poverty line, representing a daily income of US $2 or less. The World Bank has noted that the average annual income was only US $450 for the same year, while unemployment ran close to 40 percent.

This poverty, aid agencies point out, quickly translates into under- or malnutrition. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) reports that 7.9 percent of the population regularly experiences severe food insecurity, meaning they cannot always afford to feed themselves or their families. This can often lead to one or more family members foregoing food for an entire day.

To help tackle the problem, the WFP initiated a school feeding strategy in 2003, which linked food aid to other chronic issues, such as education and gender equality. The programme targeted 1,300 schools in 85 rural districts in areas suffering from high rates of poverty, malnutrition and gender disparity in school enrolment.

Under the programme, families are entitled to 50kg of wheat and 3kg of cooking oil for every three-month school term attended by their daughters, explained WFP Deputy Country Director for Yemen Salman Omer. Such rations, Omer noted, can make up as much as 20 percent of the average recipient family's food intake.

Despite these initial measures, the UNICEF report notes that considerably more must be done to halt malnutrition among children in countries such as Iraq, Sudan and Yemen, where “under-nutrition rates…have been getting worse since 1990”.

"Despite humanitarian promises and appeals, the proportion of underweight children in developing countries has declined only slightly in the last 15 years, falling just five percentage points since 1990,” the report added. “This situation underlies the deaths [ from malnutrition] of about 5.6 million children under five every year [in the world].”