Keeping schools open in Yemen

Education
War & Peace
Yemen
 children attend class in a school building damaged by a Saudi-led air strike in Taez.
Education against the odds. Yemeni children attend class in a school building damaged by a Saudi-led air strike in Taez. ©Ahmad al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images

Donya Al Hilali is awakened almost every day by the horrifying sounds of air strikes and missiles dropping close to her home. She hastily completes her morning chores and rushes to school in Taiz city, walking the unsafe roads so as not to be late for her students.

Donya teaches in a girls-only school located on the frontline between Houthi militias and other armed resistance groups. It is nearly a year since the government paid her salary. But she is only absent when it is too risky for her students to attend. Attacks on her school – which was once hit by an airstrike and on multiple occasions by missiles fired from the ground – left one of Donya’s students dead and another severely injured.

The launch of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in March 2015, and the ensuing eruption of internal conflicts between different armed groups, has had a devastating effect on Yemen’s education system.

‘It is like a very sick child that you want to keep alive without getting any help,’ says Donya. Security is just the half of it. Her other challenges include high absence rates, shortages of books and resources, and muchreduced schooling hours. Last year she only covered half of the syllabus, so she lowered assessment standards and passed all the children in the hope that they had acquired the minimum knowledge and skills. Another major challenge is malnutrition; girls are fainting from lack of food.

Thousands of school buildings are out of action. The conflict has seen all armed actors deliberately attack education infrastructure, regardless of location, authority or political alliance, despite widespread international condemnation. The fierce wave of violence has left some 2,300 schools either partially or completely destroyed and more than 1,600 unfit for use.

School buildings are used for shelter, by the military and – most recently – as quarantine centres for victims of cholera; thousands of teachers and students are displaced. Some two million – nearly a third of school-age children – are now being deprived of their right to education.

But Yemen’s teachers are not giving up – despite the fact that 70 per cent of the profession are now working on a voluntary basis, since government salaries stopped 11 months ago. ‘Many male teachers are working as market traders or builders on their days off,’ explains Sahar Foad, a teacher from Sana’a. School administrators cut hours to free them up to seek other jobs, to make this possible.

Deprived of an income, hunger is starting to bite for teachers, too. For a while, local business owners distributed food baskets but these were sporadic and covered only a limited number of schools in major cities.

‘Teachers gather displaced children around trees and give classes when they can’

‘Teachers have cut their meals, and those of their children, to one per day. Some can no longer afford essential healthcare and medicines – but still, they continue to attend to their classes,’ says Sahr.

Yemeni teachers continue to show extraordinary commitment. Eighteen months of war and its associated traumas have left at least 10,000 dead, according to the UN, and millions at risk of starvation. But despite hunger, security and political threats, teachers refuse to let their students down. Where there is no school, they gather displaced children around trees and give classes when they can. They are stepping up their pastoral role: offering psychosocial support to students traumatized by war and loss, intervening to stop young girls being married off or young boys being taken for child soldiers. Some bring food from their own kitchens to feed hungry students.

Without these champions of hope, a whole generation could have been deprived of their right to education.

Sawsan Al-Refaei works for the Arab Campaign for Education as a Policy, Advocacy & Research Co-ordinator.