Originally posted at the Huffington Post.
This weekend in Sana’a, I had dinner with a group of young men and women activists who are on the forefront of Yemen’s historic struggle for a better future. They turned out for change with great courage last year, and at dinner, with great eloquence they outlined for me the many challenges facing Yemen during this critical transition period: conflict in the north and south, weak government institutions, cultural barriers to greater women’s participation, an upended economy, and one of the world’s highest birthrates. And, as one man noted, it is difficult to engage the 70 percent of Yemeni people who live in rural areas in dialogue about the future when they are struggling just to find the basics of life: food, health, water.
His comment makes plain the rising, complex humanitarian crisis facing Yemen. At a time of historic political transition, nearly half of Yemen’s population is without enough to eat, and nearly 1 million children under the age of 5 are malnourished, putting them at greater risk of illness and disease. One in 10 Yemeni children do not live to the age of 5. One in 10. This is a staggering and often untold part of the Yemen story: a story of chronic nationwide poverty that has deepened into crisis under the strain of continuing conflict and instability.
Unfortunately, in communities used to living on the edge, serious malnutrition is often not even recognized in children until they are so acutely ill that they need hospitalization.
On Saturday I visited Al Sabeen Hospital, where I met Amina, a 2-year-old girl who weighs a scant 11 pounds. She had enormous eyes and was silently perched on the side of the hospital bed, supported by her mother. The nurse caring for her told me the government of Yemen had just cut the hospital budget by 20 percent as it grapples with an economic crisis, forcing them to lay off critical staff.
While there, I announced an additional contribution of USAID humanitarian assistance, bringing the U.S. contribution this year to nearly $80 million, which enables us to increase families’ access to food, health, nutrition, and water sanitation programs. We have provided previous support to the more than 550,000 displaced Yemenis, and we are rapidly expanding our assistance to reach those in need throughout the country.
This is a humanitarian crisis that requires collective global action, however. In the first delegation of this kind to visit the country, I came to Yemen along with colleagues from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the Arab League to underscore the need for an urgent global response.
Yemen has an historic opportunity to reshape itself, building on the vision and courage of the young people who poured into Change Square last year, and on the excitement of millions of Yemenis who turned out for their first election in February. At dinner, one young woman told me that she is not the same timid person she was before, that the revolution “pulled her out of her egg” and she is transformed. Last year, she went to the square without telling her parents. When they saw her on the news, they reacted initially with horror. Now, they are proud of her dedication to a new future for their country.
But this future depends on the ability of children to live past their fifth year, and on families being able to support themselves and women surviving childbirth. As the United States continues our support for a historic transition, we are also committed to providing urgent humanitarian assistance. And given the complexity and scope of the challenges at hand, it will take global partnership and resolve to help the people of Yemen realize the future they deserve.