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Expert Opinion

The road from Yemen: Part 5


Inside Yemen: “Education has become a luxury”

“You can see children walking to school barefoot, carrying their notebooks and pencils in plastic bags, rather than regular school bags,” observed one of IDMC’s researchers in Yemen. “Education has become a luxury for most of us, unfortunately,” said another. 

Some two million children are estimated to be out of school in Yemen, almost three times the number of out-of-school children at the beginning of the war. In areas of active conflict, it is estimated that only one in three children attends school due to safety concerns, displacement, unavailability of teachers and destroyed or damaged schools.

Preliminary evidence collected by IDMC through interviews with internally displaced families in Taiz, Aden and Lahj governorates indicates that their dire economic situation is the single largest barrier to accessing education. In a country where 81 per cent of the population is currently living under the poverty line, unable to meet their most basic needs, and ten million people are one step away from starvation and famine, it is no wonder families are not able to prioritise school for their children. 

An education worker explained that school uniforms are no longer mandatory, the education ministry provides books and yearly fees equivalent to a few dollars for middle school grades have been waved for some displaced families. Even so, one displaced family living in a former school in a neighbourhood of Taiz city said, “it’s true that education is free, but that’s not enough for us. As a displaced person, I cannot even afford basic school supplies for my kids, despite the low cost of these items.” 

In addition to extreme poverty, the long distances between internally displaced people (IDP) settlements and the closest schools, or simply the unavailability of schools in areas of displacement, was cited as another major barrier to education for families, particularly in rural areas. Much like the overall population of Yemen, the majority of IDPs live in dispersed settlements in rural areas where distance from school is not only a logistical and financial barrier, but is also a security concern for families who are unwilling to send their children, especially girls, on long treks to school in this current context of lawlessness. Additionally, the overall number of schools even fit for use has been reduced due to them being damaged or destroyed during the war, serving as shelter to IDPs or being occupied by armed groups.

School-turned-IDP settlement in Taiz governorate
A former school, now IDP settlement, in Taiz governorate.  

Based on information from IDPs in Taiz coming from the northern governorates under Houthi control, the non-payment of salaries of government employees, including teachers, has had a large impact on the education sector there. About 10,000 schools in northern governorates are severely impacted by this issues, as 51 per cent of teachers have not received their salaries since October 2016. As one IDP from Sana’a put it, “how can a teacher possibly give anything (i.e. impart knowledge) on an empty stomach!” A displaced father of four from Sana’a living in Taiz emphasised another problem with education in the Houthi-controlled north. He said, “over the past few years, the Houthis have poisoned the school curriculum with dangerous sectarian propaganda which will negatively impact our kids’ future. They have also used schools to recruit youth into their armed forces.”

The UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for 2019 outlines the humanitarian community’s plans for support to this sector. This includes payment of salaries for teachers and school administrators, providing school meals for children, setting up temporary learning classrooms for displaced children, distributing school supplies and rehabilitating school buildings. These activities will no doubt play an important role in improving the current status of the education sector. However, with only 2.2 per cent of the total needed funding for 2019 earmarked for education, which, at the time of writing was only 75 per cent funded by donors, it is important to reprioritise the whole sector through significantly increased investment into basic education infrastructure and the human resources on the ground required. Additional funds would allow for more areas and schools to be targeted, more children to be reached and additional services, such as transport to and from schools in rural areas, provided. 

Education cannot wait and providing un-interrupted, quality education to children, including displaced children, is a way to ensure a sustainable end to their displacement once the active conflict ends and the basis for a more stable future. Education protects children from war-time abuses, such as recruitment into armed forces, helps families break the cycle of poverty and will support the country, as a whole, once recovery and reconstruction starts.

This blog series is part of a broader project researching the relationship between internal displacement and cross-border movements along the displacement continuum, based on research with the Migration Governance and Asylum Crises (MAGYC) consortium and IDMC’s Invisible Majority thematic series. In case you missed them, read part 1, 2, 3 and 4 from Europe and Djibouti. This is the first of several thematic discussions in the blog series on internal displacement issues inside Yemen.