Millions of Yemeni students affected as strike by unpaid teachers keeps schools shut

Yemen School 3
Some teachers like Tahani have been volunteering to help children in Yemen (UNICEF / Saeed)

Children in conflicts, Education Cannot Wait, Education in emergencies, Right to education, Safe schools, Safe Schools Declaration, Teachers and learning

On the first day of the new term, UNICEF said nearly three-quarters of the war-torn country's educators have not had their wages for a year and almost 500 schools have been destroyed.

Classrooms in Yemen’s capital and rebel-held north remained largely empty on the first official day of school yesterday, as war, hunger and an economic collapse leave millions struggling to survive.

“The future of 4.5 million students hangs in the balance,” Rajat Madhok, spokesman of the UN children’s fund UNICEF in Yemen, told AFP. 

A union strike over the suspension of teachers’ salaries has ground education in areas controlled by the Iran-backed Huthi rebels to a halt, three years into a war between the Iran-backed rebel alliance and a government backed by Saudi Arabia. 

UNICEF estimates 13,146 schools, or 78% of all of Yemen’s schools, have been hit by the salary crunch, many of them unable to open for the first day of school.

Nearly 500 schools have been destroyed by the conflict, repurposed as shelters or commandeered by armed factions in a war that has killed thousands and pushed the country to the brink of famine. 

Yemen School 1

Girls at Huthaifa School in the capital Sanaa before the teachers’ strike (UNICEF / Alzhrhani)

Schools in the capital Sanaa and across northern Yemen were forced to delay the September 30 start of the scholastic year by two weeks after the rebels failed to pay teachers’ salaries.

In government-held parts of Yemen, however, most schools this year opened as scheduled on October 1. 

In Sanaa, 13-year-old Bashar al-Zaraji went to his school to register for classes yesterday – but found himself looking straight at a locked door. 

“I asked the school guard where everybody was. He told me the teachers were still on strike. They want their salaries,” Zaraji told AFP.

“So we’re living in a country where we can’t study and nothing works,” he said in exasperation. “What are we supposed to do?”

We're starving to death and they want us to teach? Abdel Hakim, a teacher in Sanaa

AFP reporters in Sanaa said younger pupils were in tears after waiting hours for their teachers to arrive, only to be left disappointed. 

A handful of schools did open their doors to allow students to register for the year. Others have taken to replacing teachers on strike with administrators loyal to the Huthi rebel movement, a measure education experts say is far from sufficient to meet children’s right to education. 

“It is not only the issue of whether the schools open but the quality of the teachers,” said UNICEF’s Madhok. 

Nearly three-quarters of Yemen’s educators have not been paid for 12 months, according to UNICEF. 

Teachers who struggled through a year with little to no pay say they will hold firm to their strike in the year to come. 

“We’re starving to death and they want us to teach?” said Abdel Hakim, a teacher in Sanaa. 

“It’s better to leave teaching and go look for work to feed my kids,” he told AFP.

Others have been moonlighting in other professions or looking to shift vocations altogether. 

“For the past two years, I’ve gotten paid just half my old salary every two months,” said teacher Mohammed Abdelrabb.

A bleeding education sector poses a major threat to the wellbeing of children, who are at increased risk of being recruited into militias, forced into labour or married off young, Madhok said. 

The Huthis had promised teachers would be back in the classroom this school year.

The Iran-backed Huthis in 2014 drove the government out of Sanaa and south into Aden, hometown of beleaguered President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi. 

The Hadi government last year pulled the central bank from rebel-held Sanaa to Aden, a move the UN said deprived more than one million civil servants – including teachers – of their salaries and pushed families toward starvation.

One principal in Sanaa said she decided to open her doors to her students yesterday, regardless of whether any teachers actually showed up. 

“If they stay home that won’t stop us from receiving students,” she said. 

But some longtime residents of Sanaa said they were at their wits’ end with the crumbling of the country’s infrastructure, culminating in the paralysis of education.

“Since the Huthis came to Sanaa our salaries have been stolen, so has our health care, electricity and water” said Fahmi al-Sharabi, a 35-year-old resident of the capital.

“And now our children are being robbed of their education.”

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