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A humanitarian worker in Yemen provides a lesson on perspective

Reuters/Khaled Abdullah
‘There are human stories behind the numbers.”
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Nairobi—KenyaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Although the world has all but forgotten about it, Yemen is the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet.

A civil war raging since 2015 was made worse by interventions from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with an assist from the United States, and Iran on the other side. Some 24 million of its 30 million citizens are now in humanitarian need as a result, with more than three million people suffering from acute malnutrition (including over a million pregnant or breastfeeding women). On top of it all, Yemenis now face a lack of sanitation and health care so severe it has fueled the world’s most serious cholera epidemic. Millions are internally displaced, and the country consistently ranks last in the world when it comes to gender equality.

In short, Yemen is really not the place one would go looking for optimism, or even hope. But that’s the currency the people working to alleviate Yemen’s humanitarian disaster deal in. Discussing the situation with one of them was a source of an unlikely lesson in the power of reframing, and how much agency we have in the narrative we see even in the most dramatic of circumstances.

Nestor Owomuhangi is a country representative in Yemen with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), one of the organizations providing emergency care to the million women and girls who have been left without any health care access or support of any kind.

While in most situations the UNFPA only finances reproductive health programs at existing health care centers, in Yemen half of those facilities are not functioning, and only a third provide any reproductive or maternity care at all.

As a result, the UNFPA is now solely responsible for running nearly 270 Yemeni hospitals, which means paying for everything from electricity to medicine to supplies, including contraceptives, gynecological services, and support for the many cases of intimate partner violence.

Funding those services has been made near impossible by the United States, however. The world’s richest country stopped giving money to the UNFPA altogether in 2017. What’s worse, that loss in funding coincided with a dramatically increased need for more funding. UNFPA needed $110 million to help the Yemeni population in 2019. It was only able to raise $38 million.

More than 100 health facilities have closed as a result, leaving hundreds of thousands of women without any reproductive care, and many more at risk if more funding doesn’t come soon. Yet, at the International Conference of Population Development in Nairobi earlier this month, Owomuhangi had a strong, convincing answer to the question of how, in the face of it all, he maintains hope.

With the smile of someone who realizes the situation he works in appears merciless to most, he turned around the data to show there is another way to look at it. Knowing that 80% of the population is facing a humanitarian crisis is crushing, but knowing how many of them are helped every day isn’t.

Yes, he said, the support to victims of violence that UNFPA can support only reaches a very small fraction of the women who need it. But it has still helped some 10,000 women so far. True, many health facilities have been shut down and more might soon follow, but the ones that managed to stay open delivered in 2019 more than 5,000 live babies from mothers who didn’t die of pregnancy related causes. Less than 6% of the women in the country who need reproductive care have been reached by UNFPA services. But that is, in this year alone, 700,000 women.

From Owomuhangi’s perspective, hundreds of thousands of people are getting a chance—and that is many, many lives, even if it’s just a small percentage of all the ones that need help.

“There are human stories behind these numbers,” Owomuhangi said. And those stories fuel his work.

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