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An act and tool of resilience: trying to realise the right to education in Yemen

As the United Nations and US President Barack Obama host two major international events on refugees and migrants, GCE members working in contexts of emergency and conflict tell us their stories, putting conflict into context and explaining how civil society is working to support children struggling to realise their right to education. This article was written by Sawsan Al-Refai from GCE's regional member network the Arab Campaign for Education (ACEA). She has worked in development policy-making and programming for governments, UN and civil society organisations in the region, mainly in Yemen, for more than 18 years. Sawsan is now based in Amman, Jordan.  

PHOTO  1  boy in Al Taleaa School in Tihama Region

When a friend of mine wrote in 2014 “Yemen is not a good place to be a child”, I recalled my own happy childhood in Yemen in the late 1980s. My fondest memories were those of my school - its vast yard and my school bus trips in the beautiful buzzing streets of the capital Sana’a. Now it is 2016, and I have to agree that Yemen has indeed become one of the worst places to be a child.

Yemen struggled with poverty, underdevelopment and political turmoil long before the war of March 2015. Intermittent conflicts in different parts of the country only amplified the severity of the existing protracted crisis.

In pursuit of safety and shelter, the numbers of displaced citizens continue to rise - from 334,000 at the end of 2014 to 2.4 million in February 2016. Half of the displaced are children. A large number of displaced families are not able to meet their basic needs and lack access to food, clean water and sanitation.

War has had a direct impact on the already fragile public sector in Yemen, and the effect on the education system has been particularly devastating. Despite the remarkable strides made in expanding access to basic education and improving gender equality over the past few decades, since the 2011 uprising the pre-existing challenges facing the education sector continue to grow. For example, gender disparities have widened and enrolment rates and retention rates have decreased. After the escalation of the conflict, 3,600 schools were closed and half of all school-age children were out of school (3.4 million).

Although schools re-opened in November 2015, over 1,600 schools remain closed due to insecurity, damage to infrastructure or because they are being used as shelters by displaced people. According to the Ministry of Education, the damage to educational facilities has affected 1,430,875 students and school curricula for the academic year 2014/2015 were not completed in 4,503 schools. Additionally, many teachers were displaced leaving classrooms empty.

During a Local Education Group (LEG) meeting held in Amman, Jordan in early January 2016, a representative of the Minsitry of Education PHOTO  2 school in AlJawff governorate destroyed by airstrikespresented several photos of schools before and after the conflict. Many audience members broke into tears; they knew the amount of effort poured into every brick and every desk, and the hope they represented completely destroyed in mere seconds.

The Yemeni Coalition for Education for All (YCEA), for example, has maintained a strong presence in the country since its formation in 2009. The coalition, a member of the Global Campaign for Education (GCE) and the Civil Society Education Fund, comprises over 50 civil society organisations and teachers’ unions, and calls for free, compulsory, quality education for all. During the war, it has implemented ’Back to School’ advocacy campaigns at national and local levels, voicing the needs of children and their parents, marginalised groups, and displaced persons. The coalition used GCE’s Global Action Week for Education 2016 as an opportunity to direct attention to the education crisis – targeting both policy-makers and the national media. YCEA maintained a dialogue with education stakeholders on the global and national level, for example, though advocacy meetings with the UN’s OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and the Ministry of Education, lobbying for an increased education budget for war-inflicted areas. It also advocated for conflicting parties to commit to protecting education facilities from all sectarian, regional and partisan conflicts. A code of ’Black Shame’ was adopted and circulated widely that shames any party or individual targeting students or schools or using them for military purposes.

Organisations like YCEA have a vital role when it comes to policy-making and sector planning - and particularly so during times of crisis. Of course, the complexity of wartime politics is beyond the comprehension of the boys and girls who simply wish to go to school and play safely in their neighbourhoods. Along with the intense psychological trauma, boys are more likely to fall victim to killing, maiming, arbitrary detention or recruitment by armed groups, while girls are particularly at risk of early marriage and gender-based violence. Despite the crisis, the importance and power of education prevails, largely due to the work of dedicated Yemeni teachers and aid workers as well as support from devoted partners such as UNICEF and the Global Partnership for Education. Students continue to study and live in the same classrooms. Teachers gather displaced children around trees and give classes when they can, and older students volunteer to teach younger ones in the most difficult environments. Throughout the crisis, the efforts of civil society have been critical in ensuring education is prioritised.

Education is an act and tool of resilience, as well as being a basic human right. It is the key to restoring hope and building a brighter future in Yemen. Special attention should be given to displaced children who are accessible; programmes that mitigate the psychological impact of conflict on children, as well as peace-building, should be introduced as a mainstreamed approach rather than an additional component of learning. But to get all children into school, more resources and political action are desperately needed - the current funding gap is enormous. 

PHOTO 3 teacher in Nokhom  SanaaAmid the devastation and uncertainty, some international donors and international organisations working in the education sector withdrew due to security concerns and the lack of clarity on who holds powers in the country. Available funds were earmarked for basic humanitarian aid such as food, water and shelter, leaving few resources to address the education crisis. Sadly, this trend is visible in Yemen and beyond: globally, levels of aid to the education sector are 8% lower than they were in 2010, which indicates that the education sector is falling further down the list of priorities for donors. A commitment to addressing the education crisis in Yemen is long overdue. The launch of the Education Cannot Wait Fund for education in emergencies is definitely a step in the right direction and may one day bring hopeful smiles to many young faces. Donor governments must deliver on the pledges made to the Fund at the World Humanitarian Summit in May, and commit to meeting the remaining shortfall. The United Nations General Assembly and the Summit for Refugees and Migrants this week is another opportunity for world leaders to make concrete commitments. 

Only a strong global campaign by the international education community can transform the reality for the millions of children affected by crisis. Only then can our promise for their right to peace and education be honoured.

A shorter version of this article has been published on the Global Partnership for Education blog page - read it here.

Photo #1: A boy in Al Talea’a School in Tihama Region where only a few classrooms are still used for teaching. Remaining classrooms are used as food and aid distribution centres. Credit: Majd Fuad (2016).

Photo #2: A school in AlJawff governorate, completely destroyed by airstrikes. This school is one of the very few in the area that provided access to education for local students. Credit: Yemeni Ministry of Education

Photo #3: A teacher in Nokhom, in the capital Sana’a, is using a school-yard to give classes to children who have been displaced with their entire families to the classrooms within the same school. Credit: Majd Fuad (2016).