Bridging basic education gender gap in Taiz [Archives:2007/1029/Reportage]

March 1 2007
Satisfied female students from Al-Farowq school in Mawiya district.
Satisfied female students from Al-Farowq school in Mawiya district.
A classroom scene from a school involved in the JICA BRIDGE project.
A classroom scene from a school involved in the JICA BRIDGE project.
By: Craig Anderson
For Yemen Times
and Nisreen Shadad

“Japan's BRIDGE (Broadening Regional Initiative for Developing Girls' Education) project has reached deprived places and implemented projects concerning girls' education where the Ministry of Education didn't reach,” said Deputy Minister of General Education Hasan Ba'aum.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency's girls' education project held a workshop Feb. 24 wherein JICA shared the project's progress with the Yemeni government, including lessons learned and best practices from its experience.

Mahdi Ali Abdusalam, director of Taiz governorate's Education Office, explained, “The six pilot districts were selected from particularly deprived rural areas where both female teachers and students were greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts, as well as having high female student dropout rates. Further, these districts are poor and citizens are unable to provide their children basic school materials.”

The difficulty citizens face to reach such districts and the schools in these districts meant that students, particularly girls, couldn't study and numerous schools closed. “After six months of study, we selected the most deprived cities, as well as the poorest,” Abdusalam noted.

He stated that the project's objectives are to improve girls' access to educational opportunities at the basic school level in Taiz governorate, and through step-by-step evaluation, to develop a model that subsequently can be replicated across various Yemeni governorates.

The project showcased the scheme's unique and successful “bottom up” approach to educational development, wherein those communities selected to participate are given the responsibility to decide how they want to use the Japanese funding they receive.

JICA launched the three-year project in June 2005 in association with the Ministry of Education, Taiz governorate's Education Office and smaller district education offices in six districts of the governorate: Sam'e, Mawiyah, Maqbanah, Al-Waza'iya, Al-Mokha and Dhubab.

The project supports Yemen's goal of providing basic education for 95 percent of children between ages 6 and 14 by the year 2015, aiming to do so by reducing the currently significant gap between the number of girls and boys enrolled in school.

Taiz governorate was singled out as a suitable region to launch the scheme due to being Yemen's most highly populated region, in addition to displaying the greatest disparity between the number of girls and boys attending school.

Further reinforcing this is the project's focus on Islamic education, a vital aspect in the scheme's sustainability. Promoting consideration of such sayings by the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) as “Seeking knowledge is every Muslim's duty” and “Educating your daughter is a religious duty” allows the project to exist in line with prevailing religious beliefs and succeed in communities where the mosque often was the only previous source for education.

Abdusalam ascribed the low number of girls attending school to difficulties they face and lack of female teachers. “Parents need a safe environment to be able to send their daughters. When preparing a good environment, fathers send their daughters to schools,” he noted.

He ascertained that the project's sustainability is founded upon the ability to mobilize local community participation to the highest level possible, as well as procure full support at both local and national government levels.

Emily Allardyce, a specialist in girls' education on the JICA-BRIDGE team, stressed, “The project is not an imposition of foreign values upon Yemen. It's being carried out in line with local cultural norms. The communities have been involved with the scheme's planning from its very inception and must remain doing so if we want the project to continue successfully after JICA's withdrawal next year.”

Added to that is women's participation through the formation of mothers' and fathers' councils and raising awareness of the opportunities for girls' education in the targeted districts. “Awareness has been raised further through radio and media campaigns,” Allardyce added.

Further features of the project also include implementing organized financial planning and budgeting within the 56 schools involved in the selected districts, improving the quality of school educational environments, as well as providing adult literacy classes. These classes are considered vital in their ability to change adult perceptions of the importance of education and subsequently encourage more of them to send their children to and keep them in school.

In the first year (2005-2006), JICA approved just over YR 28.4 million for 276 projects in 56 pilot schools in the six Taiz districts, with such projects set to exist as a model for other similar projects. JICA allocated 74.2 percent of funding to improve school educational environments, such as by constructing and repairing classrooms and hiring teachers. Remaining funds were allocated for other activities, such as purchasing water tanks, school bags, sewing machines and radios.

The results clearly are palpable. For example, in Maqbanah district's Al-Jabri School, teachers previously forced to write on doors in place of blackboards now have been provided blackboards as a result of JICA funding.

In the workshop, the BRIDGE team received feedback from the government regarding the project's improvement. Minister of Education Abdulsalam Al-Jawfi considers the project a model one. Since the government has followed up the project's philosophy and strategy step by step, “We've observed an increase in the number of girls attending schools.”

The project will run through 2008, at the end of which it aims to have the average number of girls attending school to 85 percent, as compared to boys. Up to now, the project has attained a 75 percent average.

However, Yemeni residents in these districts are wary that such a project will continue at the same quality once Japan leaves it to the Yemeni government in 2008. “If the Japanese leave the entire management of the project, we'll begin from zero [meaning that the accomplishments they achieved will be diminished],” ascertained Ahmed Mohammed, general director of Maqbanah district's education office.

The challenge now is to maintain the level of success and ensure its momentum, which will be impossible without the Ministry of Education's full support. At this stage, all parties involved, from each individual in the pilot communities right up to those at the government level, must work together if such an important project is to continue successfully after JICA's withdrawal and if it's to be a model for other such projects in the future.