Originally published in the Herald Sun and Herald Sun online.
Small talk can be difficult with someone who lives in Yemen. Questions about family often turn to dead relatives. Talk about a bad night’s sleep and you might find yourself in a conversation about nightly bombing raids.
Such was the case recently in Jordan, when I ran into an old friend and colleague, Bushra Aldukhainah. She is a provincial manager for CARE’s emergency response in Yemen and it didn’t take long for our conversation to turn to the trauma of daily life in a country gripped by a brutal civil war. She told me about sleepless nights due to bombing raids. She told me about family members killed in the fighting and about the half a million children on the brink of starvation.
All of those are ongoing horrors, yet they are stories that are barely registering on the global agenda.
Yemen, which is just south of Saudi Arabia, is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Even before the current conflict, it depended on imports for 70 per cent of its fuel, 80 per cent of its food and 100 per cent of its medicine. With its ports and airports closed by a military blockade, very little of anything is available to civilians now. Before the war, more than 10 million Yemenis were going hungry but now many are facing severe food shortages.
Those numbers should be shocking. But the sad reality is they are easy to ignore in Australia and in other parts of the Western world. Yemen has a population of 24 million, roughly the same size as Australia.
Now consider the fact that in Yemen there are 21 million people who are in need of humanitarian assistance.
That’s more people who need help than in Syria and South Sudan combined. In only six months, almost 6000 people have been killed in the conflict, and another 26,000 injured.
To make matters worse, the Yemenis, being on the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula, are trapped. The borders of Saudi Arabia to the north are closed and heavily defended and to get to Oman in the east, Yemenis would have to cross a huge desert. The only other option is a perilous journey across the sea to the African nations of Eritrea or Somalia.
The history behind the civil war is complicated. What matters now is the effect it is having on the innocent victims: Yemeni civilians.
The United Nations estimates that the number of children under five at risk of starvation in Yemen has tripled in 2015. More than half a million children are now not far from death. That figure was 160,000 before the conflict.
I was recently in Jordan to assist with CARE’s response to the conflict.
There, I got to talk to aid workers like my friend Bushra who are determined to ensure the humanitarian response does not stop, despite the many risks involved.
Bushra’s team has been distributing emergency food and water, when aid deliveries are possible, and has been working to restore water sources.
Those are the kind of things that are taken for granted in Australia. In Yemen, they are in extremely short supply.
But amid these stories of despair Bushra did have some good news.
She told me about Khairia, a woman who started volunteering for CARE after her home was destroyed by air strikes. For cultural reasons, Khairia had never had a job outside the home. But through her work with CARE, Khairia became a leader in her community and was able to help them gain better representation at local meetings and aid distributions.
It’s examples like this that remind us of the importance of focusing on women’s needs and the benefit it can bring to the whole community.
But for organisations like CARE to continue to help Yemenis who are suffering, more funding is desperately needed. The UN’s appeal for Yemen is less than half funded and the Australian Government has provided no assistance to any organisation responding to the crisis. That must change and it must change quickly.
We also need the media to help increase the visibility of the conflict, which could generate public support and political pressure for a resolution.
Now back in Australia, as I get set to celebrate New Year and the holidays with my family, I can’t help but think of women like Bushra and Khairia, and all of those in Yemen who feel the world has forgotten them. All I can do is bring their voices back home to Australia and hopefully shine a light on this crisis.
It took a photograph of a lifeless young boy washed up on a beach in Turkey to wake up the world to the crisis in Syria.
Let’s not wait for further tragedy before we care about Yemen.
Donate to CARE Australia’s Global Emergency Fund at care.org.au
ISADORA QUAY IS CARE AUSTRALIA’S GENDER IN EMERGENCIES SPECIALIST