Saturday, August 28, 2010

Educating the Yemeni girls

Photo: Oxfam GB
With so much of ho-hulla over girls’ education where is Yemen headed? My own visits to different parts give me both optimism and causes despair. The concrete structures of the schools impress me but the fact that no special efforts are being made to motivate parents to send their daughters to schools and allow them to complete their education is disheartening. Recently, a colleague mentioned that during her meeting with education officials in a governorate, the officials grumbled that they built schools for girls but all the schools are running into a loss. What they meant was that the investment and regular cost of maintaining those schools is not matched by adequate enrollment and retention of girls in these schools. This is a clear example of schools being built without community consultations and agreements with parents. Community participation in the decision-making related to the location of the school, facilities required in the schools and the sex of the staff pay a key role in a community’s willingness to allow their daughters to get an education.

My own visits to a few schools located close to or inside villages demonstrated another side of the story. Village elders and school authorities informed that the demand for seats in schools is far higher than the capacity of these schools. They have developed an interesting strategy to deal with the problem. Every year, they enroll the older girls and reject younger ones. They believe that in this way every girl will have a chance to study, albeit late. The flipside of this strategy is that it reduces the ‘learning years’ that a girl has. Since a large number of girls are taken off the school by their parents when they reach the age of puberty, these girls have lesser number of years to pursue education.

The experience of the schools located close to or inside villages, however, demonstrates that a few simple steps can improve girls’ enrolment. If the reasons behind drop out is analyzed and remedial steps are followed in a comprehensive and integrated way alongside factors that have led to an increased demand for seats in schools, an enormous impact on girls’ retention in schools and completion of education can be ensured. Let us look at some of the steps that could be taken up.

Despite the fact that villages in Yemen are small and located far from one-another, the need to open basic and secondary school in disadvantaged and remote areas cannot be emphasized more. The above given examples show that unless schools are located within a distance that communities feel is appropriate a large number of girls in rural areas will continue to miss out education. If the government feels inadequate to build and maintain schools in all areas, it should aid and encourage nongovernmental organization to start bridge schemes, and nonformal education centres to provide quality education to small number of students in the local communities. Such education programmes should be recognized by the public and private sector so that their usefulness is not any less than qualifications acquired in government institutions.

Photo: Oxfam GB
Girls’ education, from basic to secondary level, to become a ‘viable option’ for parents, must be free. In a society, which does not regard education having any intrinsic value or does not see girls education as having any material value, any cost, whether school fees or the cost of book, stationary, uniform and transportation or hidden costs like those charged for student projects, is bound to be seen as an avoidable drain of family income and can discourage parents from sending their daughter to a school.

These two steps alone will not be sufficient unless all schools have women teachers. These teachers should be trained, motivated and supported not only in teaching but also in organizing community outreach activities so that they can induce girls into education. Often, parents are concerned about sending their daughters to a co-educational school because they fear for their safety and honour. For example, one of my colleagues after a focus group discussion with a community in Seiyun district shared that most parents in this community are reluctant to send their daughters to the school because a male teacher tried to molest a girl student. It is important, therefore, that the schools in participation with communities should put code of conduct for male teachers and students and sanctions in place to stop harassment and abuse of girls.

It would be a good idea to provide some incentives to poor families to motivate them to send their daughters to the school. The incentives could take the form of free food, stipend to pursue basic and secondary education, free transport, a fixed deposit that the girl can receive after she completes secondary education, etc.

Another important issue is that education and vocational training should not be rolled out separately. A step that is needed to convince parents about the usefulness of girls’ education is to compliment education with market-oriented vocational skills. This will help parents see immediate usefulness of educating their daughters.

Another critical step that is needed, at least, in the initial stage to give a thrust to these efforts is to give job/income generation opportunities to those women who complete their education in the formal sector. This step calls for coordination and collaboration between various agencies, both governmental and nongovernmental. It requires that the donor agencies which support basic and secondary education, vocational training and employment generation programmes should see these three as connected issues and their grant-making policies should reinforce these connections.

To sum up there is a need not only to invest more in girls’ education but also to invest effectively. This calls for high level of donor and government commitment to increase investment as well as to strategically reform education curricula and delivery systems. And this commitment must be sustained over a long term to provide free and universal access and other facilitative services, and to achieve balance between education and relevant vocational training in schools.

Article originally published at Yemen Times:

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