Over half a million Yemeni children are directly or indirectly affected by qat, a flowering plant that holds importance in Yemen’s culture and is chewed by many across the country.
According to researchers the average person in Yemen spends 10-20 percent of their income towards buying the plant. Families of all income levels spend three to four hours of their day chewing the bitter leaves as part of their daily routine. What is worrisome, however, is how children are chewing qat too.
“Qat negatively impacts children’s health in Yemen," said Khalid al-Karimi, translator and reporter for The YemenTimes. "Its impacts are not confined to the skeleton but to the psyche as well. Fragile bones and pale skin are enough to make anybody admit of the qat’s grave effects. If a child spends his time chewing that means schooling has not, and cannot, be provided. Consuming qat paves the way for a multitude of illiterate generations and destroys the health, heralding a desperate future.”
International organizations too recognize the problem qat poses for children.
In an interview with Al Arabiya, Mohammed al-Asaadi, Communication Officer, UNICEF Yemen said: “The income that should go to food, health, education and clothing of the children is spent on qat, which affects the family and the wellbeing of children.”
Many farmers have dedicated themselves to growing this thirsty plant which consumes 50 percent of the country’s water resources. Some farmers are ripping out fruit trees and coffee plants to concentrate on qat production. This has affected the already fragile economy.
“There are so many reasons many families ask their children to join them for qat, particularly in the rural areas, where children tend to start helping their families with the work on the farms at an early age. However, in tribal areas where there are conflicts, parents need their children to be in the house, not outside so not to be exposed to any harm as a result of the conflict. Parents thus tend to ask their children to stay with them and give them a bush of Qat or few leaves so that they remain in the house and study for school,” said Asaadi.
However, Asaadi added that parents may have not introduced qat directly but that “children get into the habit by watching their role models, parents, siblings or extended family.”
“It starts as an imitation of the elderly, then progresses to an addiction and later a habit,” he added.
Several users say they experience a boost of energy providing a mild high to insomnia that keeps them awake all night.
The country is seeing an increase in daily users with 15-20 percent of children under the age of 12 being consumers according to World Health Organization (WHO). About 90 percent of adult men are believed to chew qat, while 73 percent of Yemeni women are estimated to chew it for leisurely purposes, reports WHO.
Pregnant women have even taken up the habit, resulting in lower birth rates and even malnutrition. Qat suppresses hunger and appetite, negatively affecting mothers’ breast milk production also. Some mothers provide their child with supplements such as artificial milk causing common side effects such as diarrhea or flu. However, poorer mothers find it difficult to provide the care needed for the child. This may result in severe malnutrition or even death.
Several campaigns have been created with the aim to end qat addiction as well as protect the children of Yemen. Some believe a ban would be effective; however with more than 80 percent of a country chewing on the plant this may prove difficult.
"The campaigns and initiatives cannot help curb the spread of qat fields in many areas nationwide," said Karimi. "Qat planting should be deemed as the genesis of the problem. Ironically, some campaign organizers are hard qat addicts themselves. Thus, the initiatives and campaigns are inefficient.”
A new campaign, under the phrase “What you spend on your qat, can help your neighbor,” encourages people to spend money on helping others rather than spending it on qat.