Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with 24 million people in need of aid, half of whom are children. As a result, the country is now the worst place to be a child. Among the enormous challenges that girls and boys face is the lack of education. Fixing this is a priority and the best way to do it is not by rebuilding schools or through food baskets, but by ensuring that teachers receive a fair and regular salary.
The conflict has reversed decades of progress in children’s education. More than 3.7 million children are reported to be out of school or at risk of dropping out. Only two-thirds of schools are functioning, with the rest destroyed, damaged, used for military purposes or turned into shelters for displaced people. Where the buildings still stand, trained education staff are leaving or have already left. Lack of basic services – water and sanitation, electricity – and insecurity around schools pose major barriers to the teachers and students that remain in classrooms. Meanwhile, Yemen’s two Ministries of Education are both failing to provide adequate budget or support to the education system.
The Covid-19 pandemic has added further challenges to an already complex situation. Distancing in classrooms with 100-plus students is simply not possible. Public school budgets suffer huge deficits and can hardly cover basic operational costs, let alone disinfectants, masks and hand sanitizers. Many schools lack running clean water and soap. When the last meal a student has taken is 18 hours ago, coronavirus is not considered a priority.
With pockets of famine-like conditions returning to the country for the first time in two years, catastrophic food insecurity is expected to nearly triple in the coming six months. The effect of this along with ongoing forced displacement, high unemployment, and the collapse of social support systems has meant financially struggling households have stopped sending their children – especially girls – to school. Harmful coping mechanisms such as child marriage, child prostitution, child armed recruitment, and child labor have instead become the only ways to generate income. Daily education is a vital safeguard against such practices and provides a safe space for children to thrive. But it cannot function without teachers.
In the early months of the conflict, violence was the main factor preventing teachers from doing their job properly. Some lost their lives or were injured during airstrikes and armed conflicts when their schools were caught in the crossfires. Those who objected to state funds being dedicated to frontline fighting were prosecuted, beaten or harassed. In addition, the de facto authorities – the Houthis in the north and the Southern Transitional Council in the South – took advantage of teachers’ need for financial support, only giving assistance to those who agreed to their new regulations. Those who objected were blacklisted. Schools were also used for arms storage or military camps. All of this polarized both teachers and their syndicates.
However, as the conflict became more protracted, money became the main reason holding teachers back. More than five years of unpaid or partially paid salaries continues to drive thousands of trained professionals away from their classrooms. Male teachers have become construction workers, taxi or bus drivers, or farmers. Female teachers, especially those in rural areas, have opted for home-based work, such as tailoring, scent-manufacturing or baking goods for sale.
The teachers that remain are under huge pressure to quit. Externally funded programs provide them with short-term incentives such as food baskets and low monthly stipends but the majority of direct support for teachers does not cover their basic needs such as food, transportation, and medicine. Instead, many local communities have found innovative ways to support teachers in this difficult time, from mobilizing volunteers to raising funds. However, these efforts remain small-scale and unsustainable. They also greatly vary from one area to another depending on the security and socioeconomic situation.
Of course, the lack of teachers is not the only reason Yemen’s education sector is struggling. Another key factor is the various warring parties’ inability to exclude it from political and security bargaining, ignoring continuous calls from civil society to unconditionally commit to protecting this vital service.
Before the conflict, Yemen’s education sector was highly centralized, with everything coordinated and managed by the Ministry of Education (MoE) in Sana’a. There were funding deficits and high numbers of students dropping out, with the level of school autonomy and accountability uneven across districts and governorates. However, most of the gaps were covered by the private sector, diaspora remittances and community-mobilized funding. Additionally, teacher training and curriculum revisions programs – primarily driven by international donors – significantly boosted the quality of education.
Since the conflict, however, coordination of the sector has been split between two MoEs: one in Sana’a and another in Aden. The negative ramifications have been immense. Both ministries have sought complete control and ownership of any externally funded educational projects or programs. They have indulged in futile conflicts over curriculum changes and territorial divisions, rather than responding to the urgent education needs on the ground. They have also conducted needs assessments, planning and selection of target geographic areas and partnerships unilaterally and opaquely. Neither decided to invest in education monitoring.
This has led to a major deterioration in teaching quality and learning outcomes. Many key stakeholders have also scaled back their involvement in the sector, including local non-profits who boast strong access and experience working in emergency settings.
As a result of all of this, 5 million Yemeni children are in acute need of education, according to the latest Humanitarian Response Plan. Yet with so many humanitarian needs competing for few resources, education struggles to climb the long ladder of priorities, with a funding gap of around $91 million, according to the Humanitarian Action Plan. A recent assessment showed that reconstruction costs involved with rebuilding the education sector’s infrastructure in 16 cities could rise to over $500 million. The additional health issues associated with a second Covid-19 wave will likely put further pressure on aid budgets, shunting education further down the ladder.
International donors have achieved some progress by distributing school supplies, providing school meals, maintaining temporary learning spaces, and rehabilitating new schools and WASH facilities. Newly approved funds, such as the Yemen Restoring Education and Learning Project will support further activities. However, these do not address the long-term problems, which are vital to fix to save an entire generation from dropping out of school.
In sum, the situation is difficult and it would be quite ambitious, if not naïve, to suggest that full education sector reform is possible in the current climate. A peace agreement is not expected anytime soon. Schooling is not seen as important by either Yemeni decision makers or the international community, at least not to a significant extent. Plus, there are huge political, economic and governance challenges that hinder education from being conducted as normal. Nevertheless, there is an important step that can and should be taken to save additional millions of children from leaving school: paying teachers their salaries.
The benefits are obvious. Teachers in Yemen have shown themselves to be immensely flexible in difficult situations; they have taught students under trees, in mountain caves, and even in their own homes. Some have also distributed school meals they have paid for themselves. Teachers can help stop students from dropping out and ensure that classrooms remain a place for protection and nurturing.
Areas where education has ceased completely should be prioritized. An inclusive and transparent decision-making mechanism that goes beyond the education cluster system and genuinely “localizes” decision-making, will help the scarce existing funds be spent efficiently and towards sustainable results.
International and local organizations working in the sector should pressure donors and MoEs to prioritize teachers and reach a collective solution to maintain regular salary payments, especially in rural and elementary schools. This sounds expensive but makes financial sense – if teachers are properly supported, long-term plans for school rehabilitation works, curriculum reforms and teacher training can be postponed. While training, textbooks, buildings and so on are important, without a teacher, there can be no education.
Author bio: Dr. Sawsan Al-Refaei is a Yemeni expert and researcher in public policy and advocacy. During the period 2016-2018, she worked as policy, advocacy, and research coordinator for the Arab Campaign for Education. She is a founding member of the Arab Network for Civic Education and the Arab Campaign for Education.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or its donors.
Editor: Kate Nevens
Copy Editor: Venetia Rainey
Photographer: Albaraa Mansoor
YPC nationwide representative survey, April–July 2019. Data cited in this paper is drawn from this survey unless otherwise indicated.
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