UN evacuates staff as Yemen crisis worsens, threatens women, girls

Mursala and her son Saad, from Taizz, stand with Hatima from Sa'ada. All have fled their homes owing to conflict and now live in the Dharawan settlement on the outskirts of Sana'a, which is host to a number of internally displaced families. Photo by: © UNHCR/Shabia Mantoo

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations Population Fund has evacuated part of its team from Yemen, in another sign of the country’s worsening humanitarian crisis.

“We had to downscale our presence in Yemen, as the situation got really bad and [we] had many sleepless nights of nonstop shelling and airstrikes,” UNFPA spokesperson Lankani Sikurajapathy wrote to Devex on Wednesday, the day she arrived in Amman from Sana’a, Yemen’s capital.

Eighty U.N. staff remain in the war-torn country, where three-fourths of the population require immediate assistance. Violence has flared this past week in Sana’a, including around the U.N. compound, placing aid workers on lockdown in their residences, according to the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs. Sikurajapathy described the departure of UNFPA staff as a “precautionary measure in case the situation escalated further.”

Women and girls continue to experience the brunt of Yemen’s ongoing conflict, UNFPA’s Country Director Anjali Sen explained to Devex in a recent conversation.

As of late last week, UNFPA was awaiting a delivery of cleared medical and other humanitarian goods, Sen said in a phone interview from Sana’a.

About 400,000 pregnant women and their newborns were at risk of not receiving proper medical care during the recent 3-week military blockade instituted by the Saudi-led military coalition, which prevented the delivery of humanitarian supplies to more than 20 million people in need. The port blockade was partly lifted at the end of November.

The nearly 3-year-old conflict, which the U.N. has dubbed the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis,” has plunged the poor Arab country on a path to famine. About 1.1 million malnourished pregnant women were at risk of death during pregnancy and childbirth during the blockade, and 2.6 million women are still vulnerable to gender-based violence. Food insecurity, impacting more than 17 million, and famine can exacerbate the risk of gender-based violence, Sen said.

“We see this intersection between conflict, violence, and displacement really resulting in a very distinct and gendered experience of famine. Women and girls face that separately from how men and boys experience it,” Sen said. “In Yemen, Yemeni women and girls have a lot of caregiving roles and responsibilities, and they don't have as much movement and mobility and that hinders their access to basic services and access to food.”

“This is totally a man-made human catastrophe. Yemen is getting worse. And it has really transformed Yemen into the world's largest food insecurity crisis.”

— Anjali Sen, UNFPA’s country director

The U.N. is set next month to release its annual humanitarian need overview for 2018. More than half of the amount requested for Yemen’s humanitarian needs in 2017 — 1 billion — has been funded. About $1 billion is still needed to meet the country’s food security, agriculture, health, and other needs.

While some humanitarian flights and ships are now allowed into Yemen, the blockade remains in place for the commercial import for food and fuel, prices for which have increased over 200 percent. This could likely lead to disastrous consequences. President Donald Trump called for a complete lifting of the blockade Wednesday, saying in a statement that “this must be done for humanitarian reasons immediately.”

Multiple humanitarian organizations working in Yemen sounded the alarm on Wednesday about the “dire conditions” civilians are experiencing, as Mercy Corps described. The organization called for an immediate ceasefire between the Saudi-led military coalition, operating in support of Yemen’s exiled government, and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who seized control of the capital Sana’a in 2014.

These calls for peace came one day after former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed in an attack south of Sana’a, forcing Yemen’s situation to reach “a new adverse development,” as Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, U.N. special envoy of the secretary-general for Yemen, told the Security Council.  

The medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières also warned Wednesday that warring parties are showing a “new level of disregard for civilians,” as air strikes and street fighting have severely limited people’s access to safe medical care in Sana’a.

"Health services have been repeatedly attacked over the course of this conflict," said Steve Purbrick, MSF field coordinator in Hajjah, a northwest city, according to a media release. "Yet again warring parties are not taking measures to spare medical facilities, endangering the lives of patients and medical staff. Civilians must be able to flee or seek medical care, ambulances must be allowed to reach the injured and hospitals must be protected."

The U.N. has been seeking to evacuate 140 aid workers from Sana’a, Reuters reported Sunday.

Recurrent naval blockades and closed humanitarian access points have posed varied challenges to UNFPA, along with other humanitarian actors. The agency has found it can take anywhere from two weeks to up to five months for their kits — including reproductive health kits — to travel from the sea port of Hodeida to Sana’a.

UNFPA has reached more than 1.2 million women with reproductive health care and 25,000 women and girls with gender-based violence services, including counseling. The sexual and reproductive health rights agency has been operating in 21 of Yemen’s 22 governorates, working with local organizations such as the Yemeni Women’s Union to respond to an uptick of child marriage reports through awareness building.

There’s a strong connection between child marriage and instability of a nation, whether as a result of conflict or natural disaster. Nine out of the 10 countries with a high rate of child marriage are also fragile states, according to the Women’s Refugee Commission.

It’s also enlisted the support of a private company, with which it has a long-term agreement, to support customs clearance, and enable the transportation of goods, including their dignity kits. These include abayas and hygiene products.

“We have to be aware of the context, and that's the main thing. We are in a humanitarian crisis. We know what the challenges and all agencies are facing this, issues of access, access and interference by the authorities,” Sen said. “We have to work around that and we have to continuously be speaking and looking with the authorities, advocating with them and praising these issues around access.”

But some things are inevitable in a conflict situation.

“There's armed conflict. We have the airstrikes. So we we have to do our planning keeping all of this in mind. And that's why, as we enter into something, you know we have long term agreements with some agencies, which helped transport and customs and then implementing partners,” she said. “We have to ensure that we look around and overcome these challenges and obstacles.”

Read more Devex coverage on the Yemen crisis.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.