Education of girls in the Yemen

by Laila Noman

State education for Yemeni girls during the British occupation of South Yemen was almost non-existent outside the capital, Aden. In Aden itself, primary and intermediate schools for boys and girls existed in each small township of Steamer Point, Crater, Shaikh Othman, etc. The only girls’ secondary school was the girls’ college in Khormaksar. Two private schools that went to secondary level were the Order of St. Francis convent schools in Crater and Steamer Point. The latter was my school for four years, as I was not eligible for State education because I had not been born in Aden. Needless to say, my mother found this a rather bizarre situation and protested long and loud - to no avail.

In the north, education for both girls and boys developed in leaps and bounds after the death of Imam Ahmed in 1962, and the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic under President Sallal. Prior to this, the only education for girls had been at Islamic schools, ‘al ma’laamah’, where the Koran was memorised, or in schools built in various villages through local initiative. One such school was built in my father’s area of al-Aboos in the late 1950s, and I remember youngsters from our village walking for over an hour to get to school in the morning, and facing the same journey home in the early afternoon. There were no roads suitable for vehicles in the area at that stage. This school was co-ed, one of the first I can remember in the country. Although the majority of the pupils were males, some enlightened fathers sent their daughters to school, at least for a few years. This has to be seen as real progress in a village area. Maybe the fact that my father sent me to live with relatives in Aden so that I could attend school there impressed local people. While it was normal to send sons to school in Aden if the family could afford the fees, it was most unusual for girls to live away from their parents for the sake of education.

I am glad to say that this has changed completely over the years, especially in the north at tertiary level, where many girls live in Sana’a at university hostels so that they can pursue their higher education.

Another interesting feature in present-day Yemen is the focus on vocational training for females. There has been a very successful midwife training programme in place for many years, whereby girls from the villages come into one of the main towns or cities - Taiz, Hodeida, Sana’a - and receive intensive training in birth procedures and, most importantly, hygiene. On completion of the course there is a graduation ceremony and the presentation of a birthing ‘box’ full of equipment to each participant, who then returns home to her village. Initially, the idea was to bring in the traditional birth attendants, the old lady in the village who was the birth ‘expert’, and give them the basics of childbirth and thus try to lower the tragically high statistics of death in childbirth. I saw a few of the early participants, and it was an amazing sight to see ladies in their sixties, who had never been to school or even into the city before, coping with the intricacies of the course and providing much valuable input themselves.

The success of these courses led people to be more relaxed about letting their daughters go to the cities to train as nurses. As in most countries, nursing, midwifery and teaching are regarded as worthwhile and honourable careers, especially for women.

With independence in the south in 1967, major education plans were put into place, despite severe financial constraints in the new republic. Education for all was seen as a way forward and a huge training and building programme began. With help from friendly neighbouring countries and various aid projects, schools and vocational training centres were established. A very real attempt was made to provide education in all areas of the republic for at least the first eight years of schooling. This was made all the more difficult and costly due to the fact that a road network had first to be established across the country. Those familiar with the terrain in the Yemen will know how difficult that must have been. Programmes on radio and TV emphasised the importance of education for both girls and boys. A huge literacy programme was also devised. This was given the final major thrust in 1984/5, when schools were closed for a further three months following the summer break, and those six months were used to provide blanket coverage of the whole country, every tiny village, even including the island of Socotra. Every teacher in the country was involved, special books had been printed and the basics of language and maths were taught. Needless to say, the programme was a huge success, and is a very real example of what can be done with determination and planning.

Meanwhile, education for both sexes had really taken off in the north. It must be remembered that the two Yemens were separate entities at this stage, with very different politics and sources of financial aid. But from the very first President Sallaal showed that he regarded the female population as an important part of society. At his inauguration ceremony in Taiz, in which I was involved, women took part in the official celebrations and shared in displaying the new flag with men. This might not sound like very progressive stuff, but it was. Men and women were together on a public platform and the pictures were shown around the Arab world as well as many other countries. It was already a strong statement of the way Yemenis wanted to progress. They were exciting, heady days, full of planning and very hard work, with little personal pecuniary reward, but enormous satisfaction for everyone involved.

I would like to move forward to the 1970s, when things began to clarify in the education sector. The Yemen was still separated and the systems were quite different. In the south, education was based on a system of ‘unity’ schools for the first eight years, then four years of secondary school, with a choice of academic, vocational, technical or teacher training education. Out of the total enrolment of 351,000, about 89% were in unity schools. In the north the school system consisted of six years of primary school, three years of intermediate and three years of secondary schooling. In the mid 1970s, enrolment in the north was about 94,000. This had increased to 1,400,000 by 1990.

Both parts of the Yemen were suffering the same kinds of problems: insufficient government budgets, lack of Yemeni teachers, overcrowding, inefficiency in management, urban and male bias. Since unification in 1990, these problems have certainly been compounded in the short term, with the added considerable challenge of establishing a national administrative system that has to cope with an ever-rising demand for education.

The government of the Republic is now integrating the two systems into a unified nine years of basic education, followed by three years of secondary schooling. The problems of adding a ninth year to schools in the south can be immediately appreciated, with the added burden of providing more classroom space, teachers and materials, and a new curriculum for the eighth and ninth grades. External influences have added further burdens, such as 150,000 students who had to be absorbed in 1990-91, when they returned with their families from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. A system already unable to provide enough classes, teachers and materials was overwhelmed by this influx, but has coped admirably given the circumstances.

I would now like to look at some statistics for 1990-92, the sources of which are the Ministry of Education and the World Bank. The educational bias in the Yemen is towards males, urban populations and also for primary and intermediate levels. 2,290,000 students, 92% of total enrolment is within the first nine years of education, with less than 5% of all students enrolling at secondary level. In basic education (grades 1-9), only 24% are females. In grade 1, girls account for 31%, but by grade 9 this has dropped to 11%. In the first six grades, girls account for 27% of all students, but by grades 7-12, it has fallen to 14%. An estimated 54% of six-year-old girls do not start school, with a corresponding 8% of boys of the same age. It is therefore obvious that not only do fewer girls start school, but they drop out at a faster rate than boys. This has resulted in a male dominated school system, with the prospect of numbers of illiterate Yemeni women likely to continue to rise in the future.

The urban/rural bias is quite severe. 80% of Yemenis live in rural areas, but over 50% of total enrolments in general education are in urban areas. This means that while most urban boys will be educated, rural girls will not be.

Recent field studies in the north and the south have identified several reasons for the low enrolment of females: conservative attitudes that frown upon males teaching young girls, some parents’ aversion to mixed schools, the feeling that education is irrelevant to a girl’s future, the distance from schools in rural areas, lack of parent awareness of when to send children to school, dissatisfaction with the lack of qualified Yemeni teachers, lack of books and teaching materials and parents’ financial constraints. Where conditions are propitious, female enrolment tends to be high; in some urban areas girls make up 50% of primary enrolment.

Given the rather low starting point of the education system in the 1970s, with intense population pressures and chronic financial constraints, the expansion of the Yemeni education system in the last two decades has been nothing short of spectacular. Few countries in the world have been able to provide education so quickly to so many people under such difficult conditions, as has been testified in various reports by UNICEF and the World Bank. This rapid expansion has been quantitative, at the expense of quality somewhat, but the government is aware of the problem and is trying to take long-term measures to secure a more qualitative approach to the provision and standard of education in the Republic of Yemen as a whole.

November 1995