ADEN -- With thousands of Yemeni children being recruited by the Iran-backed Houthis to replenish their ranks, human rights organisations have documented cases of sexual abuse and other harassment targeting these young recruits.
On February 11, media outlets, including Al-Masdar Online, circulated an old document in which the Houthis' leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, admits to shocking abuses child fighters in the ranks of his group are being subjected to.
According to the document, sent from the Houthis' Command and Control Centre to the group's personnel affairs official on March 6, 2018, "al-Houthi issued instructions regarding the status of the young of age at the front".
In the document, al-Houthi says he has been informed of "cases of rape of children [occurring] on the battlefronts, some of which resulted in death".
In a January report, the UN Security Council's panel of experts on Yemen said there had been at least one instance of child rape during military training held by the Houthis.
Meanwhile, Yemen's National Committee for the Investigation of Human Rights Violations has conducted its own investigations into the treatment of children recruited by the Houthis.
The committee listened to the testimony of children in the ranks of the Houthis who had been subjected to sexual abuse, said committee spokeswoman Ishraq al-Maqtari.
"A number of these recruits were raped several times by their supervisors, and were subjected to direct and suggestive sexual harassment," she told Al-Mashareq.
"This is what these children said in the course of the interviews, and that they were not treated justly... when some tried to complain about it," she said.
"The exploitation of children in war has unfortunately grown to involve very large numbers," said al-Maqtari.
Violations include everything from forcing students to take part in "religious education" sessions that incite hatred to military training camps and eventual participation in the fighting, she said.
The UN report said the experts found evidence the Houthis used several summer camps and a mosque to disseminate their ideology and recruit children to fight Yemen's internationally recognised government.
"In one camp, children as young as 7 years of age were taught to clean weapons and evade rockets."
The experts said they documented 10 cases where children were taken to fight after being told they would be enrolled in cultural courses or were already taking such courses.
There were nine cases where humanitarian aid was provided or denied to families "solely on the basis [of] whether their children participated in fighting", the report said, "or to teachers on the basis of whether they taught the Houthi curriculum."
Nearly 2,000 children recruited by the Houthis have died on the battlefield between January 2020 and May 2021, the report found.
Preparing reports about the situation is not enough, al-Maqtari said, calling for the perpetrators to be held accountable for their crimes, and for action to be taken against their leaders.
The latest UN report cited the case of a 7 year-old child who was sexually abused, according to Deputy Minister of Justice Faisal al-Majeedi.
"We are facing a real challenge, as these crimes must be documented and submitted to the judicial authorities, and then the instigators and all Houthi leaders involved brought to trial," he said.
A crime against childhood
The sexual abuse of children recruited into Houthi ranks "is indicative of the criminality of this group and the Iranian regime that sponsors it", said Deputy Minister of Legal Affairs and Human Rights Nabil Abdul Hafeez.
He noted the dangers that beset childhood in Houthi-controlled areas.
"Reports have confirmed the violations being committed by the Houthi militia on a constant basis against children," he said.
In addition to putting them at risk of losing their lives by recruiting them and sending them to the frontlines, children are subjected to other abuses, including sexual abuse, rape and harassment, he said.
Lawyer Abdul Rahman Berman said the responsibility for addressing these violations against children is borne primarily by the family and the absence of the state.
The absence of child protection institutions "leaves the family bearing the largest share of the burden to protect them and raise their awareness", he said, adding that the government needs to address this situation.
He also pointed to the role the media plays in disseminating information about such crimes in order to raise awareness, "as publicising them would be educational for parents and a warning to the children".
Last June, the United Nations added the Houthis to its 2021 list of violators of children's rights. The group was first named on the list in 2007.