Broadening Regional Initiative for Developing Girls’ Education (BRIDGE)Girls’ education in rural areas needs much attention [Archives:2007/1104/Reportage]

November 19 2007
Photo from archived article: photos/1104/report1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/1104/report1_1
Not just girls, boys want to learn also.
Not just girls, boys want to learn also.
By: Emad Al-Saqqaf
Embittered deteriorating conditions and problematic situations have caused many in Yemeni society to experience lives of abject poverty, misery and deprivation.

Yemeni society has clung to numerous bad social norms keeping women from their basic educational rights. One of the most heartbreaking aspects when touring villages across Yemen is witnessing the thousands of girls who are totally deprived of education.

However, the Broadening Regional Initiative for Developing Girls' Education, or BRIDGE, program, along with the Japan International Cooperation Agency, or JICA, initiated a girls' education project in remote districts of Taiz governorate in June 2005. The three-and-a-half-year project grants schools YR 500,000 to improve their girls' education strategy.

The Yemen Times and BRIDGE recently organized a workshop on the program and the importance of developing girls' education in Taiz, which should have the attention of the Yemeni government and Education Ministry officials.

Low-level education

Taiz is one of Yemen's most densely populated areas. Generally speaking, citizens seem to have a mistaken impression regarding the area's education levels when the reality is contrary, as the education level is quite low in its rural districts, where gender discrimination still exists and a large number of girls still are deprived of their basic educational rights.

The BRIDGE project selected six target districts in Taiz governorate: Dhubab, Maqbanah, Waziiya, Al-Makha, Mawia and Sama'e, involving 59 schools in these districts.

Through the beneficiaries' eyes

Considerable progress has been made and tangible results seen in several of these target districts, namely Dhubab and Maqbanah.

“The BRIDGE project has helped us immensely in achieving a high schooling percentage for girls,” Al-Amal School principal Ahmed Qasem enthuses.

He notes that the project strengthened his school's basic infrastructure by constructing additional classrooms and launching awareness campaigns to urge parents to send their daughters to school.

“Education facilities have been fully provided, such as a microphone and its accessories, water tanks, school notebooks and transportation for girls. BRIDGE also has recruited and contracted four teachers for our school,” he adds.

Omar Bin Abdulaziz School also has the project's support, which provided a YR 85,000 wooden structure for the school in nearby homes in order to make it easier for both girls and boys to attend school.

Tawfiq Ali Sa'eed, principal of Maqbanah district's Al-Hayah School, discloses that JICA has undertaken his school's entire operating expenses. “Without such support, our school would be brought to a standstill,” he observes, noting that both he and his teachers receive their salaries from JICA. Additionally, a sewing workshop and three sewing machines have been provided to encourage girls to attend school.

Girls' attendance is unexpectedly and considerably high at Assalah School, totaling 450, which is a 50-percent increase, thanks to the BRIDGE project's active contribution to that school.

Student reactions

“Before the project's initiation, our schools were in dire need of basic necessities and services, such as toilets, which is one of the main reasons girls are kept from school,” student Souad explains, “Girls have to go home due to the non-existence of toilets in schools.”

Al-Amal School student Haleemah observes, “A large number of girls have returned to school due to the BRIDGE project's active contributions and giant strides in these districts.”

Haleemah herself is returning to school after four years to complete seventh grade. “My father prevented me from completing my basic education, but he now has allowed me to go back to school,” she adds.

Just considering the openness of Haleemah's father to send her to school again is clear testimony of BRIDGE's many successes and positive contributions to improve the level of girls' education in these areas.

As if this weren't enough, BRIDGE also has launched education-related public awareness campaigns for area locals regarding the importance of sending their daughters to school. The local community's active participation and interaction at the grassroots level is a key factor in fulfilling the project's desired development goals.

In this regard, staff have been well trained and school committees have been established, along with forming Parenthood Assemblies in every school.

A four-hour daily trek

Girls in these target districts have a strong propensity toward education and their desire to learn has increased considerably, particularly after the BRIDGE project's implementation, which has paved the way for them to prepare, struggle and persist in acquiring knowledge.

For five girls heading to Maqbanah's Al-Hayah School, the worst thing about going to school is the four-hour daily walk there and back.

Student Karama says, “Education is very important, so I'm keen to be at school on time. I start walking to school with my classmates at 6 a.m., arriving at 8 a.m. When school finishes at noon, I usually reach home at 2:30 p.m.”

The girls in these schools enjoy limitless ambition. For example, Karama dreams of being a doctor so that she can treat patients in her village.

Assalah School student Iftikar also speaks highly of the BRIDGE project's contributions in her district. Like Karama, she also has high ambitions, but she aspires to be a lawyer. “I want to be a lawyer in order to bring the sheikhs to justice. They have plundered my father's lands and he has fallen a prey to their tyranny. They do this because my father is poor and helpless and can't confront them boldly,” she says, voicing her grievances.

Expanded awareness & local participation

Sheikh Abdulghani M. Ali Qasem, a member of the Fatherhood Assembly at Maqbanah's Al-Amal School, believes education is of paramount importance and that educated daughters are the mothers of the future. “Before the BRIDGE project's initiation in our district, we were totally unaware of the significance of education or learning. We didn't even establish any type of contact with teachers,” he notes.

Nowadays, the situation is vastly different, as locals have established a Fatherhood Assembly to review and discuss their worries and concerns. “As members of the assembly, we can increase parents' awareness about the great significance of education, as well as urge them to send their daughters to school,” he further remarked.

Female teachers are a must

Habits and customs in these target districts differ from one village to another village due to social traditions, followed by the locals themselves in these areas, which in turn has compelled parents not to send their daughters to school.

Even little girls aren't allowed to remove their veils from their faces, which is considered against social norms. Additionally, some women in these areas reportedly die of illnesses without even seeing a doctor.

Similarly, a large number of parents keep their daughters from school because they don't wish them to have male teachers.

As one Fatherhood Assembly member explains, “Girls can't speak freely in front of male teachers because they aren't accustomed to doing that, so this negatively affects their level of understanding.”

“Personally speaking, there's no difference whether it's a male or a female teacher. Girls prefer male teachers to female ones,” principal Omar Al-Mukhtar in Dhubab remarks.

One girl comments, “I want to become a teacher in my village because so many girls are deprived of education due to the lack of female teachers.”

Mixed classes

Mixed gender classes are another reason girls don't attend school and this issue differs from one school to another, particularly during basic education. In secondary school, girls often don't have the desire to complete their education.

“Most of my classmates left school because of mixed classes,” states Muna Abduraqeeb, “As for me, I still possess a strong determination, despite harassments I encounter while studying.”

Teacher M. Fara'e asserts, “Mixed classes really are a serious issue for girls, so we must separate boys from them because considerable learning progress for both boys and girls clearly can be detected in doing so.”

He adds, “We're grateful for the BRIDGE project's efforts in terms of expanding and constructing additional classrooms. However, in order to pave the way for learners, particularly girls, what's needed is constructing additional classrooms.”

Teacher Salwa Al-Mekhlafi believes that mixed classes are the main reason for students' low level. “Girls become more confused and are unable to ask or answer questions during lessons,” she explains.

Veiling of young girls

The spread of veiling among young girls in most schools within the target districts constitutes a repression that affects their lives and deprives them of enjoying their innocent childhood.

According to Al-Mekhlafi, the reason for the spread of veiling among young girls in basic education is attributed completely to mistaken religious beliefs. “Some people think that revealing a girl's face is considered just like a private part, so this has led schoolgirls, particularly those in basic education, to wear veils, which presents another difficulty for them to assimilate the lessons properly during hot weather,” she concludes.

Early marriage

Early marriage in Yemeni society is considered a bad social custom and one of the main reasons for female high school dropouts. Thus, only by educating girls can we eradicate such a negative phenomenon. “When they marry, not one girl has completed her education,” one school principal lamented.

Another student told of her former classmate who had married but now is sorry for not completing her education and wishes to return to school.

Scattered homes & rugged terrain

Scattered houses and villages, together with rugged terrain that makes life even harder, is a challenge hindering educational progress in general and for girls in particular, as it has become difficult to find a nearby school for all of those students living in scattered houses.

Such issue should be treated seriously and reviewed by concerned bodies. “A large number of girls must stay at home, totally deprived of education due to mixed classes with boys or living in remote places,” Al-Mekhlafi explains.

On the other hand, parents don't want their daughters to study or learn in remote schools, so they aren't allowed to so.

Nonexistent secondary schools

Secondary schools are not found in a number of districts Because of their strong desire to study and because there are no secondary schools in their area, Khadijah and Zara'a Abbas must retake their final class.

Likewise, “I'm worried about my future because no secondary schools are available. What shall we do?” Al-Hayah School student Souad asks.

“What an uncertain future we have for our new generation!” Fatherhood Assembly member Ahmed Na'eem observes, “I just wonder where our sons and daughters can study because three classrooms are inadequate.”

Several residents and school principals in the target districts have expressed their concerns and worries about the BRIDGE project's discontinuation, which is due to end in March 2008.

“If JICA leaves, we'll be like orphans and further efforts will be to no avail,” one local resident remarks.

However, local participants in the BRIDGE project could ensure the sustainability of their efforts after the project's termination. “We really did acquire fruitful skills and experiences and we make use of it a lot in terms of administrative aspects. We could ensure the sustainability of the project, if the government provides us with the necessary assistance.”

Absence of the state's role

Education officials in the districts confirm that they have not received an estimated YR 320,000 in financial allocations under an agreement between BRIDGE and the Yemeni government, represented by the local authority.

Contracted teachers have complained about government procrastination, but no definitive action has been taken in this regard. The teachers state unequivocally that they no longer wish to continue teaching once the BRIDGE project ends.

“Employment files have been submitted to the Civil Service Ministry for more than 10 years, but even up until now, nothing has been reconsidered,” notes the principal of Assalah School.

Additionally, one teacher comments, “The state has approved several teaching posts for our area, but then they are moved to another area.”

Food first

One local council member points out that because villagers live in miserable conditions and they are in dire need of food, this issue should be given priority among other services. “This will pave the way for girls to attend school,” he says.

Classroom rehabilitation needed

Classrooms at Omar Bin Abdulaziz School, which is situated amid scattered houses, are in a deteriorating condition. Because there are no seats, students sit on the floor and they are exposed to strong winds due to not installing windows in the classrooms.

Additionally, three different classes study together in one class. Such education is of no avail because how can two teachers teach in one room? What will be the outcome? This affects students' learning, as well as instructors' teaching abilities.

However, due to lack of well-trained teachers in the target districts, the BRIDGE project has had to recruit incompetent teachers.