War looms large as Yemeni children head back to school
Thousands of teachers receive no salaries in Yemen, and many children drop out to work or fight.
August is around the corner, which in Yemen means that millions of students will be heading back to school.
But with the conflict in the country continuing and the education sector ailing, not all teachers and pupils are excited.
Education in Yemen has been a casualty of the war since it began in 2014, and particularly since the military intervention of the Saudi-led coalition in 2015.
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Schools have been damaged or destroyed, teachers have quit their jobs, and millions of school-aged children have dropped out or not joined at all.
The civil strife between the Iran-allied Houthi rebels and the internationally recognised government has overshadowed the importance of education for multitudes of citizens.
Ammar Saleh, who has been teaching for a decade, says students and teachers alike have had to deal with the effect of the war.
“I hope this new school year will proceed in a peaceful climate where students can safely go to their classrooms, receive education, and focus on their homework,” Saleh, currently a teacher at a private school in Sanaa, told Al Jazeera. “I miss the days when I used to teach without fearing air raids, bombings or fuel crises.”
He now hopes that the ongoing UN-brokered truce, which is set to end on August 2 but may be extended, will lead to the warring parties forging agreements that will benefit Yemen, and particularly the education sector.
UN reports indicate that more than 2,900 schools in Yemen have been “destroyed, damaged, or used for non-educational purposes”. Consequently, approximately 1.5 million school-aged girls and boys have been affected.
Despite that, the parties to the conflict in Yemen have dropped education as a priority.
Roughly 170,000 teachers in Houthi-controlled provinces have not received regular pay since 2016, forcing many of them to quit their posts to earn a living in other fields.
Those who have stayed are now frustrated.
“As this school year begins, we ask the Houthi authorities and the Yemeni government to provide us with our unpaid salaries. It is their fighting which has thrown us into misery,” Amal, a teacher in a public school in Sanaa, told Al Jazeera.
Amal teaches mathematics, and says that teaching is the only job she knows.
“We [teachers] feed students’ minds with information. But we need income to feed our children with food. If we keep doing this job without reward, it perhaps means that our effort is not important to society. That is disheartening.”
Amatallah Alhaji, head of the Yemen-based Arwa Organization for Development, Rights and Freedoms, told Al Jazeera that denying Yemeni teachers their pay has been a considerable blow to education in the country.
“Stopping teachers’ salaries has impeded the educational process and deepened poverty. Without being paid, teachers cannot commit to work or even reach schools far from their homes.”
Disadvantaged students shun schools
The primary focus of the warring parties in Yemen is the battlefield, not the classroom.
Consequently, the student drop-out rate has increased.
UN reports estimate that 2.4 million students aged 6 to 17 are out of school.
“The war in Yemen has deprived thousands of students of their right to education and schooling. This happens because many government schools have been turned into military barracks or homes for internally displaced people,” said Alhaji.
Abdulhameed Mohammed, 15, is supposed to be in the ninth grade this school year.
Instead, he has tried his hand at becoming a street vendor in Sanaa.
Last summer, it was ice cream and qat. Lately, he has started selling cold water bottles to drivers on a busy road.
And now that he is earning money, school is not as attractive.
“I work and earn money for my parents, and this is better than spending time in school,” Mohammed told Al Jazeera. “Even if I did not leave school this year, I would have left it next year or two years later. I know relatives who graduated from high school or university but didn’t get a job that fit their educational level.”
Mohammed is one of the millions who stopped pursuing education during wartime. Countless families cannot afford to cover any education-related expenses, with the UN saying that approximately 8 million in Yemen require education support to continue basic education.
Turning children’s minds to mines
Recruiting child soldiers in Yemen has been a common practice during the war. Schools, especially in Houthi-controlled areas, have become mobilisation hubs.
Ali, a school teacher in Sanaa, said Houthi authorities see child recruitment as an integral approach to guarantee the availability of fighters.
“The summer camps held in May and June indoctrinated thousands of school students. If a child can carry a gun, load it with bullets, and fire, he is a man. He can be a fighter. This is the Houthi group’s way of thinking,” Ali told Al Jazeera.
UN experts estimate that some 2,000 children enlisted by the Houthis had been killed between January 2020 and May 2021.
In April this year, Houthi authorities in Sanaa and UNICEF signed an action plan to prevent and end child recruitment. However, sending children to the front lines has not entirely ceased.
Ali said, “Many of the students who attended the Houthi-organised summer camps received ideological courses, and now they are ready to join the fighting if ordered to do so. Their minds have been turned into mines.”
Like the Houthis, the Yemeni government has previously recruited children, but it has taken measures to curb this practice, according to UN officials.
Eight years of military hostilities and political turbulence have set Yemen back decades in multiple areas, including education.
“An entire generation was born and has grown up in the shadow of war and conflict,” said Alhaji. “Leaving this generation without education is disgraceful and will lead to a big catastrophe.”