Dynamic approaches to child protection in the humanitarian response in Yemen
Sustainable Development Goals: 16
- SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
The human cost of the conflict in Yemen has been devastating. The situation remains grim, with needs increasing sharply across all sectors, exacerbating pre-existing vulnerabilities, degrading community resilience and accelerating the collapse of public institutions.+ Children have been acutely affected, both by the fighting and by the harmful coping strategies families have been forced to adopt, including early and sometimes forced marriage and engagement of children in child labour, including military recruitment.
This article assesses the challenges to meeting the protection needs of children and their families and communities in Yemen. Key to successfully responding to these challenges has been the adoption of diversified approaches that build on the idea of the centrality of protection. Additional important features include taking a multi-sector, integrated approach, ensuring that programmes can adapt to the challenges posed by the fluid context, seeking to embed participation and capacity-building to ensure sustainability and fostering positive engagement with local authorities and other stakeholders.
Despite humanitarian organisations’ attempts to respond to high levels of acute malnutrition across Yemen, the nutritional status of children under five and pregnant and lactating mothers continues to deteriorate.+ Displacement by ongoing fighting, the collapse of the healthcare system and a lack of livelihoods opportunities are massive barriers to ensuring that families are able to get enough to eat or can afford transport to treatment centres when family members fall ill. For those able to afford treatment, there is no guarantee a hospital will have the equipment and supplies to provide care.
Communities and families are also having to grapple with grave violations against children+ and growing protection needs. Families have been increasingly forced to resort to negative coping mechanisms to survive, with children and adolescents most affected. Girls in particular often find themselves forced into early marriage, a means by which families try to reduce expenses and obtain a dowry to support the rest of the family. According to UNICEF, more than two-thirds of girls in Yemen are forced to marry before they are 18 years old, an increase from the already high rate of 50% before the conflict.+
Access constraints, including from the deteriorating security situation, hinder staff movements. Negotiating passage through checkpoints and efforts to ensure that humanitarian operating areas are not targeted are particularly time-consuming, and operating on both sides of the front line can exacerbate these issues. Large, fluid and unpredictable population movements mean that humanitarian staff and programmes must be agile and adaptable to ensure that essential needs are met. Attempts to do this – even for planned activities – are hindered by ever-increasing requests from local authorities for information on initiatives and the need to obtain travel permits even to meet staff at project locations. These constraints make it difficult to reach children and their families on time and as often as is needed, and the resulting unpredictability of visits means that families can never be sure when staff will be able to reach them again.
Four approaches have been key to reaching Yemeni children and their families. First, Save the Children designs activities to reflect the centrality of protection, where protection is a core intended outcome of all humanitarian action. This means that protection needs and priorities are included in all discussions around the response, in individual organisational priorities, and in all ongoing country coordination and funding allocations. Above all, it recognises that different sectors can contribute in various ways to mainstream protection governed by a coherent protection strategy to guide and support actors. For example, needs assessments for protection identify vulnerable children and mothers at health centres where Save the Children runs feeding programmes, supports breastfeeding and promotes hygiene awareness. Through such integration, these assessments can identify whether there are additional protection needs for this section of the community.
Protection awareness sessions can also be centered around a clinic or health centre. Several projects have recently been implemented where protection activities or approaches are integrated into health or education activities and in outreach to communities. Ensuring appropriate and gender-sensitive WASH facilities and positive parenting education at schools are two examples of this integration, and a way to ensure that protection needs are mainstreamed into other core humanitarian programming. Challenges remain, however, with some integrated proposals requiring review by more than three ministries before being approved. This causes significant delays in programmes, and staff changes can add layers of complexity to programme delivery.
The second approach is ensuring that programmes and staff can meet rapidly changing needs by adapting the response. While flexibility is often highlighted as an essential factor in any humanitarian response, it can be harder to execute in practice. Longer-term funding to allow enough time to address the inevitable bureaucratic challenges in getting established and flexibility in donor reporting are essential to meet changing contexts and needs. This approach has worked well in Yemen, when protection results can be achieved indirectly through delivering other activities. A good example of this adaptation has been decisions to prioritise women- and child-headed households in food and cash distributions. Targeting out-of-school children for such distributions while also encouraging them to return to school reduces their vulnerability to risk and helps them feel more protected. The challenges here are around the scope of coverage and whether such interventions will contribute to address the root causes of protection issues.
Third, the sustainability of protection programming is best achieved through participation and partnership, building on local initiatives. Such an approach, including integrating capacity strengthening into the delivery of humanitarian aid, directly contributes to the sustainability of programmes. This is increasingly important as the conflict becomes protracted. Save the Children has, for example, seen community members engage more and start to report on child protection concerns, including regarding children’s safety on the way to school, and where parents, teachers and community members become part of the system for referring protection concerns to relevant support services, engaging them in the solutions to improve child protection and building community mechanisms to address concerns.
Establishing community committees and investing in local social workers within communities and schools has strengthened capacity to deal with protection concerns. Joint efforts to raise awareness and report challenges, while also helping to break the ice on sensitive issues, has helped normalise talking about and reporting on protection issues that may have been considered shameful to raise in the past. The capacity of local actors, cultural background and the economic situation of people who might not find it easy to volunteer for these efforts are ongoing challenges that staff and communities are working to address on a case-by-case basis.
Fourth, while an ongoing challenge, working with authorities and addressing perceptions of protection is a fundamental component to success. It takes time to build understanding and trust. Core to this is understanding the needs and wishes of authorities, but also building their own understanding of humanitarian interventions. Key enablers for this approach include leveraging the efforts of the protection cluster, the Humanitarian Country Team and UN agencies, other INGOs, the ICRC and other partners with a protection mandate. A critical lesson in working together in this space has been the need for a common approach to provide clarity to all actors involved and avoid approaches that divide and complicate a response through complicated referral pathways or doubling up of services.
Challenges and ways forward
There is always scope to improve. Processes of critical and honest reflection that are built into implementation frameworks and donor reporting are fundamental to development and evolution internally. Building on successful initiatives is also a key way forward. Forums to share lessons and good practice generate meaningful peer-to-peer learning and strengthen networks across the response. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and as such, as a humanitarian community, there is a need to further explore local approaches and encourage innovations to build understanding of protection with local authorities and affected populations, enable the joint design of protection strategies and facilitate advocacy to engage decision-makers at all levels, including nationally.
Initiatives centering around empowerment and capacity-building offer opportunities to make significant impacts. Save the Children is working to develop its community-based child protection structures and mechanisms to provide greater support to community mobilisation, awareness and identification of protection issues and support for and referral of children with protection needs. Such dialogue allows community members to voice their thoughts and concerns regarding protection interventions – not only picking the issues to tackle that are relevant to them, but also empowering them to find ways to strengthen child protection in their communities.
It can be easy to lose sight of opportunities to positively affect a crisis as large and complex as Yemen’s – not only when seeking to influence key decision-makers, but also in humanitarian organisations’ own plans to respond. Moments to stop, take stock of challenges, determine common elements of success across interventions and ensure that such thinking feeds into future programmes are, at a macro level, fundamental to improving impact in any response. At the micro level, it is individuals’ brave efforts and personal stories that motivate us to do all we can to change the situation in Yemen for the better and ensure a safe future for children.
Amanda Brydon is a Conflict and Humanitarian Advocacy Advisor with Save the Children UK. Mohammed Alshamaa is the Director of Programme Development and Quality at Save the Children in Yemen.