A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
The dark shadows of war have fallen upon all aspects of life in Yemen. However, the toll of war on education remains the heaviest of all. The education sector in Yemen has suffered major challenges in recent years as a result of war and salary cuts. Teachers, the cornerstone of the education sector, have not been able to perform their tasks without monthly salaries. Most teachers have resorted to teaching in private schools or teaching informal crafts for basic livelihood needs.
The overall situation in the country has driven many parents to dismiss their children’s education; parents need their children’s extra help in providing for the family under an extremely difficult economic situation. All of this has contributed to a loss of faith in basic education among this generation of students in Yemen, who believe more in the utility of informal labor rather than the pursuit of education. How can they see the point in education when they see their educated parents unable to put food on the table anymore? Consequently, the number of basic education student dropouts has drastically increased during the war years.
Just like many other civil servants in Yemen, public school teachers have not received their salaries for over three years. For this reason, most schools offer only three classes a day, since many teachers have become unavailable. Due to the lack of adequate numbers of teachers, schools have resorted to reducing the number of classrooms and putting as many students as possible from the same grade in one overcrowded classroom. This has affected the quality of education, for it is impossible for a teacher to be able to cater to the different needs of students when there are over 100 students per classroom.
Parents who can still just about afford private education, with a lot of difficulty, have transferred their children from public to private schools. This has also led to overcrowded private schools and affected the quality of education private schools offer, leading to both public and private schools being at their worst levels of performance for the past few years.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen says that 7.4 million children in Yemen need education assistance, 7.3 million of whom are in severe need of this type of assistance. Two million school age children are currently not enrolled. This means that dropouts reached a peak in various regions in Yemen as a result of the war.
Life and education conditions in Yemen have always varied between rural and urban areas. Even before the war, the invasion of qat plants in villages made young students prefer growing qat to pursuing education. During the war, the loss of faith in the utility of education increased, leading to a significant increase in dropouts, with only 20 per cent of students graduating high school.
Early marriage is one of the main reasons students drop out of schools in rural Yemen. In some cases, girls in villages are married off at the age of 13 or 14, or younger in rare cases, with cases of early marriage increasing the most during high school.
As for boys, the number one reason to drop out of school is to grow qat, because they believe it offers a more stable future than education and public sector employment. Early marriage is also another challenge that boys face, for it is difficult for a 15-year-old who gets married to pursue education when he is expected to provide for his new family. In this case, dropping out of school to grow and sell qat is the alternative. In addition, some parents do not support their children regarding education, and in some cases, they even encourage them to drop out.
Generally, the decision to drop out of school remains a choice for rural boys, but girls are forced to leave school in most cases, especially as some fathers believe that basic literacy would suffice for girls who are needed for domestic and agricultural labor.
As the war and lack of salaries drags on, challenges facing the education sector in rural Yemen multiply. Some schools have closed in some villages. Most rural students ended up dropping out, except for those who are holding on to their education despite the difficulties, and commute to neighboring villages daily to go to school – or end up moving to cities in the quest for education.
Civil society organizations have not assisted with the issue of education as much as other issues as they expect the state to take responsibility for education. The rural tradition, since the ancient times of Sheba and Himyar kingdoms, has always relied on tribesmen for constructing dams and wells as well as roads. The tradition is extended to collective rural efforts within a village to build schools and health facilities. During the current crisis, it was not difficult for people in Yemeni villages to take part in similar collective efforts in order to save education autonomously, by putting savings together to provide school books and pay teachers’ salaries.
In many Yemeni villages, the culture of tribal compensation was of great help in this regard. Tribal compensation is a financial amount that one tribe pays to another when reconciliation is offered after a dispute. This culture of collective autonomous community problem solving makes it easy for people in villages to take the initiative to find solutions for issues such as the absence of state spending on education and teachers’ salaries.
Mariya, a village 15 km to the west of Dhamar city in Yemen, provides an example of collective autonomous efforts to save education. After meeting and consulting with each other, the people of Mariya collected money from the families of school children and donations from those who are doing well financially to cover salaries for existing teachers in the village’s school. They also contract additional teachers to cover high school level scientific subjects. Teacher Saleh Baghasha and the parents association at the school led the initiative to meet with parents and people of the village. Baghasha says, “We used all possible events and arguments to convince the people of the village to support education. We went to weddings, funerals and Friday sermons to speak about the issue.”
Meeting with people in rural areas is much easier than in cities. The people of the village always gather to chew qat for weddings or funerals. Therefore, it was possible for members of this initiative to hold meetings with people. Baghasha adds: “I utilized every event to talk about education. Even if I saw a couple of people passing by on the road, I would start a conversation with them about the importance of education.”
Parents with children at elementary school level contributed 1000 riyals per student, those with children at middle school level contributed 1500 riyals, while those with children in high school contributed 2000 riyals. The contributions are collected on a monthly basis and given to a financial committee that consists of the students’ parents to cover teachers’ salaries.
Hussein Jahlan is a teacher who was contracted to come from Dhamar city to Mariya to teach some high school subjects. He emphasizes that the parents were active last year and continue to be this year, and that the students are enthusiastic and regularly receiving their education. Jahlan says that the years of war caused gaps in students’ knowledge, given that they missed many lessons and classes when teachers became unavailable. He keeps revising previous years lessons before teaching new lessons to bridge this gap, especially in mathematics and science. Ahlam Amer is another teacher who came from Dhamar city to teach in Mariya and believes that the parents’ efforts have saved the children’s chances for education in the village. She sees that the students’ performances are improving as a result of the parents’ support and constant follow up. Neither Amer nor her family face issues as a result of her moving to Mariya and dedicating all her time to teaching in the village. Baghasha and Amer are satisfied with the financial stability the parents’ initiative has provided.
The Mariya initiative has not only saved education in the village but has also become a model for other nearby villages that began to send their children to Mariya to pursue their education. Parents in other nearby villages have also begun to financially contribute to the initiative. Should parents in other villages follow the same model, this would save their children the tiring commute to Mariya on a daily basis.
Another accomplishment of the initiative is convincing parents in the village to keep their daughters enrolled in school until they graduate. In a short time girl dropouts have noticeably decreased, especially at high school level. Baghasha adds that many parents have even become enthusiastic about supporting their daughters’ pursuit of higher education. This enthusiasm was expressed by parents supporting their daughters to study computer skills and English by providing them with a bus that takes them 15 km to Dhamar city for such extracurricular courses, as well as first aid and nursing.
Districts much further from the city, such as Utmah and Wusab, have similar initiatives and kept education facilities from shutting down completely. Although this does not include all schools, the success of this model in some villages will set an example to encourage others to do the same.
Villages have succeeded where cities were unable to succeed. Social peace in Yemeni villages has historically enabled such collective labor to flourish. Education, just like everything else, flourishes under social peace and falls apart when conflict finds its way to the village, as in the case of some neighboring villages to Mariya. To people in these villages, Mariya has become the destination for a better future for their children.
Bachir Zendal is Assistant Professor in Translation and French Literature at the University of Dhamar. Bachir is a translator and short story writer. He has a number of publications, both in translation and literature.
 See the Yemen 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview: https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/yemen-2019-humanitarian-needs-overview-enar