Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Investing in Yemen’s half population is an urgent investment, Cappelaere

When Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF country representative in Yemen, was posted in Yemen right after his four-and-a-half years’ work in Sierra Leone, he had a clear vision of his job’s magnitude to work on around half of Yemen’s nation who forms less than 18 years old. He strongly emphasizes to invest on children who are Yemen’s future. Cappelaere points out many crucial points which give an insightful look at what still needs to be done to improve children’s situation especially to their top priorities which are education, particularly for girls, malnutrition and harmful practices. Yemen Observer met Cappelaere and made this

Yemen Observer (YO): Let’s start from the situation of children in Yemen as a whole. How would you compare their situation to the other countries you have been working with?
Geert Cappelaere (GC): Compared to the other countries I have been, it’s very clear that Yemen has made a number of very important progress’ steps in improving children’s situation. We need to recognize that. In area such as education, there are important progresses made. %70 or more children have already access to primary or basic education which in other countries they are yet at far. I think when it comes to health there were also very positive steps in how high the minimization rate is. That’s the result of investment the government and other partners made to guarantee that children do not any longer die from diseases tht can be easily prevented by simply vaccinating children. So we have seen a progress. But of course there are still some concerns.

YO: Name some of those concerns?
GC: Main concern goes to protection issues, like the issue of child marriage for females and males, which has been discussed very much. That leads me to say, what’s positive about Yemen is that you can publicly discuss that. There is an environment for those who are in favor of the practice can speak out, and there is also a chance for those who are against the practice to speak. So, the fact that there is an environment where people can publicly speak about it is positive. The practice might be there and it may take a long time in order to the practice can be changed but the fact that people can talk about it and say openly that they are against or not against it is a very positive development. While we see lots of positive things in Yemen, of course we need to be realistic in seeing also all what still needs to be done. It’s not all rosy when you look at to the situation of children in Yemen. When we talk about success of education we must recognize that there is still a very important number of children of school-going-ages are not able to go to schools and I think that is a challenge for us to help the government guaranteeing that all children of school-going-ages have are in schools. We are not happy with the current percentage of kids going to schools. We want to guarantee that %100 of children going-to-schools age can go to school. So the challenge is there of how to get those who are not yet going to schools to go to schools.

YO: If you could sum up the most urging challenges Yemen faces in terms of children’s situation, what would be those challenges?
GC: What I see the biggest challenges are three. One is education and guaranteeing that particularly girls getting access to education but also not simply any kind of education. We need to have them access to quality education. The school curriculum has to be that’s competitive in the 21st century. We want children in Yemen to have an education of quality similar to other countries in the world. So it’s not only enough children to go to schools, we also want them to go to quality schools, to have a quality curriculum and to have very well-trained and motivated teachers. Plus, we must make sure that schools are environments where there is no violence, where children are talked and talk about human rights and important values and etc. So, getting children to schools, particularly girls because there is still an important gap, that’s the first challenge I would say.

The second challenge and that is relatively related to the area of health which is the problem of malnutrition. When I was in Sierra Leone which is known to be the poorest country in the world, malnutrition issue was a big issue there. However, the malnutrition rate in Yemen is worse than it is in Sierra Leone. Children having malnutrition is an extremely sad reality here in Yemen. Therefore, I take this chance to make a strong call upon for the government also upon for all development partners to put tackling malnutrition a top priority.

YO: People discard that issue while it’s unquestionable that nobody can educate a child while he is hungry or lacks important nutrition. What do you think?
GC: That’s true. It’s a reality that people have not necessarily always realized how critical or important that is. Over %50 of children in Yemen are born under weight so their weights are not as should be. That’s hard to believe. There are few countries in the world which have this issue. So this issue must be a priority, it should be a top priority for the government and all concerned parties. I was very comforted when I discussed this with the minister of planning and international cooperation. When I asked him what for him should be the most top priority for UNICEF in Yemen his answer was dealing with malnutrition so I immediately proposed the deputy prime minister that we work to gather to set up a clear plan. The deputy prime minster pledged to work with us and not only that, but also to engage ministry of health, ministry of agriculture, ministry of education and ministry of information to work with UNICEF as well. It’s not the responsibility of only one ministry. There has to be a networking between all of them. All ministries need to take their responsibility in this act. It’s not that Yemen is a country where you can’t produce enough food for children; there is enough eatable land in the country. The problem is that we need to question if the eatable land is used properly, if it is indeed used to produce enough food that could help children grow healthy. These questions need to be asked. The use of water must also be questioned. We know that there is a problem with water in the country but the water is still there and are we using it properly to serve children and help the children grow up healthy. So dealing with malnutrition for me is a top priority and everybody needs to consider that and work on it. As development partners and all the donors all the international organizations, let’s work together and let’s join hands to tackle malnutrition. However, people need to be informed and need to understand that this is important for children to have good nutrition. Young mothers as well must know how important this is. Do exclusively breast feed your children for the first six months. It is the best guarantee for children to grow up healthy, it’s there and doesn’t coast money, it is there but that’s for people who understand that it’s critical.

The third challenge is tackling certain customs. For example in Sierra Leone, part of their culture is that when a family eat meals together, the best piece of the meal goes to the father first and the children come at the late. So we need people accepting that the best piece has to go to children first.

And the third priority for me includes the sensitive areas around violence and traditional practices that can be harmful for children. Problems of early marriages are critical examples. I need to emphasis the decision about the practice whether or not you continue it or stop it is the decision Yemeni people have to make. This is not a decision the UNICEF or any party from outside could make it. If we find positive aspects of early marriages, lets also be open to see the whole picture and examine all the negative consequences of the practice. I’m always very interested to read and know what people feel of positive things about early marriage for girls but it’s also important to show people how early marriage impact the girls’ development. It’s very often that those girls are pull out of schools so they can’t finish their education leading to illiteracy. It also has a negative health impact in which having sexual intercourse and having to bear a baby in such young age. Children are at that age not mature even physically to carry a baby , so you put at risk the mother’s and the baby’s health. So we need to help people to understand that and then leave it to people to make the right decision.

YO: What do you think is the quickest and most effective solution for all these issues?
What’s important for all the problems is that there is a solution. So it’s not that Yemeni people have to undergo that situation with no solutions, we can solve these issues. Getting all children into schools, having them access to quality education, having every child to be properly fed and stop any practice that could be harmful for children, these are the decisions that are on our hands. What’s important is, we have the government’s commitment to make these priorities. Governments at developing countries must plan for economic growth but let’s also put children growing up healthy and going to schools a priority as well.

YO: How is that possible?
It is because the government has already some good policies in papers but the question rising is how to implement those policies into reality? Here comes all parties to assist in implementing and translating these good polices into an operational plan and ask what needs to be done now, what needs to be done next year, in such way we are active in every governorate.

YO: How are you able to measure your success so far?
I’m proud of what we have been able to achieve in term of progress in education, health and etc but in the same time I think we can do more and better. I truly believe in the coming years, we, in cooperation with the government and the development partners, we will be able to put clear strategies for reaching those children who have been left out not getting to schools to help those children to be fed who suffer from malnutrition and I think we also have to step to ask for assistance. We need to bring more money; we need more technical expertise and help the capacities of the government themselves in every single governorate. As UNICEF, our commitment is very clear, we will very much increase our assistance to this country but we will do it in a way that we will have a few priorities to make sure we follow them very well and the priorities are education, nutrition and protection, but we will also increase our technical capacities.

YO: You sound to have an optimistic vision of Yemen’s future, while people are not. Is that true?
I can understand that and there are reasons for why people are not optimistic. We should not ignore that. Before I came to Yemen, I used to read in international media about Yemen and almost all what I read was negative. There are very little efforts to show that also there are very good things happening here. Since I came, I have seen committed teachers trying to provide children with good education and met with committed women who have clear vision on how the situation for women and children has to be improved here in the country. And I have met with governmental bodies that are very committed to make a change. So there are good things are happening. My approach is how we can make all this happen everywhere in the country. How can we replicate the good models so that they are not only for a few children or few districts but it can get everywhere?

The other thing is, when people don’t recognize children’s issues very well, like malnutrition that’s the government’s responsibility to make that clear. We must look for indictors about children’s issues because otherwise we jeopardizing the country’s development. Here comes the call for all concerned parties, to work together in solving those issues. In such approach Yemen has a bright future for its children. Decisions about children’s issues must be taken at the core of the national agenda. We must take these decisions urgently because we are losing children who are dying unnecessarily, we also lose children because they can’t go to schools and can’t contribute to the country’s development and that’s unforgivable. How can you have a prosper country when over %50 of your female population are illiterate. Let’s make sure that every female has a powerful voice and guarantee that she will contribute to the country’s welfare.

YO: Almost half of Yemen’s population is under the age of 18? Do you think a great attention should be given to children rather than any other issue?
I had a discussion with someone about al-Qadah’s presence in Yemen. With all the attention that’s being given towards that, I asked how many al-Qadah’s fighters will be in Yemen? The other person said approximately 100 people. I said that all this attention is given to 100 people while you have over 10 million children out there needs attention as well. So If you need to make a choice should you not give as much if not more attention to those 10 million children out there compared to all the attention that’s going to few hundred people who are definitely threat to the country’s security but not investing in children is probably a much bigger threat to the country in the long run. If you don’t invest in children, you spoil generations. If you have children who are illiterate, they can’t actively help the country to develop because they don’t have the skills, the necessary education and that is the biggest risk for this country. Concerned parties, like donors think the importance should be given to security issues and I agree that it is important but if that sets an obstacle to investing in children that will be a mistake. We must balance and that’s the role of UNICEF.

YO: Aside from working as UNICEF country representative in Yemen, how do you find Yemen?
During my stay in Oman I came and visited Yemen twice. I always thought it was one of the countries I wanted to be UNICEF country representative in. So, to be honest, it’s kind of a dream coming true. I really feel Yemen is a beautiful country and I was moved by its beauty, history and culture so having this chance is really great. Before Oman I was in central east of Europe therefore I was in the UNICEF’s headquarter in New York but I’m very happy to be back to the region.

YO: What’s your message to Yemen as a whole?
When people talk how to improve the country and move forward, they get to be pessimistic but I don’t do that. A vibrant and young Yemen is waiting to unfold itself. There are people in Yemen who are not happy with the situation and want to make a change. We have to empower those people and make them all be part of Yemen’s growth. Then, I’m sure we will be back to Arabic Felix very soon.