Illiteracy in Yemen: The Reason of our Backwardness [Archives:2001/13/Culture]

March 26 2001

Farouq Kamali
Yemen Times – Taiz
It is the reason behind our failure, our politics, and our social and economic backwardness. It is the reason behind the spread of disease and poverty that the majority of the population is suffering from. There is still no precise census on the number of illiterate Yemenis, yet the approximate number of illiterate Yemenis is thought to exceed 60%, i.e., 10 million of the 17 million, which is an extremely high number that threatens Yemen’s progress. No doubt, this is the main reason why we are lagging behind all other nations in the region and in the world. It is why we find difficulty in improving our economic and social standards. At a time the world is succeeding in combating computer illiteracy, we are still struggling with the inability to eradicate the illiteracy of millions of Yemenis who are yet to learn how to read and write.
Despite the fact that 39 years have passed since the revolution of 1962 and 10 years have passed since Yemen started adopting democracy, we are still suffering from an illiteracy rate that is so high that we feel little was achieved to cope with the rest of the world.
It is pathetic to see that in the third millennium, we still have illiterate people in key positions as sheikhs, military leaders, district managers, and even members of parliament. It is a shame to know that Yemen may be the only country in the world with illiterate members of their parliament. Yet, these people are being given a lot of privileges in decision making at the administrative, political, social, and financial levels. What is worst is that illiteracy is on the rise. How will it cope with the technological revolution taking place all over the world? How will it play a role in the region if it has the most illiterate population among all of the countries in the Middle East?
The State of Illiteracy in Yemen
Statistics in 1994 revealed that around 55.99% of the population are illiterate. According to experts in this field, there are around 250 to 300 thousand Yemenis who are illiterate by not being enrolled in school at the appropriate age. This means that there is an increasing illiteracy rate in Yemen, which is a dangerous indication which could lead to more suffering and misery for the people and the country. As a matter of fact, arithmetically, the number could rise to 80% or 90% if it continues at this pace. Illiterate Yemenis constitute 33.6% males and 66.4% females. More than 66.8% of the illiterate live in rural areas while 34.2% live in cities.
Due to the high poverty levels, 53% of children did not go to schools in 1994, while 50% of the children left schools without completing the 6th grade. There are currently no more than 50,000 illiterate attending illiteracy eradication courses. There are thousands of students leaving classes every day, and hence being illiterate for life.
According to Fawziya Noman, Chairman of the Organization for Illiteracy Eradication, despite the fact that extensive efforts have led to a significant decrease in illiteracy from 70% to 56%, this is not enough by any standard.
What Has Been Done So Far
The first illiteracy eradication attempts were made in 1964 when the government opened a number of centers to eradicate illiteracy in some cities and governorates.
Serious efforts to eradicate illiteracy started in 1990 when a national strategy was approved to eradicate illiteracy and teach the elderly how to read and write. In 1998, an illiteracy eradication law was issued, but stayed as ink on paper without any implementation until today. The little progress which is evident is due to efforts of the organization for eradicating illiteracy and other NGOs working in collaboration with international organizations. Fawziya Noman said, “There are 2,503 illiteracy eradication and elderly education centers operating in the republic with more than 53,988 students in this year alone.”
Efforts to eradicate illiteracy are exerted by a number of NGOs including the Taiz-based National Organization for Illiteracy Eradication (NOFIE) headed by Shawqi Al-Kadhi who said, “Despite the young age of our organization, we were able to hold 76 sessions in teaching elderly Yemenis how to read and write. We also teach elderly Yemenis many skills such as textile weaving, first aid, and basic computer and language education. We also held seminars explaining the dangers of illiteracy and ways to eradicate it.”Other NGOs working to eradicate illiteracy include Yemen Women’s Union and IDAS.
Why Illiteracy Eradication Attempts Failed
Illiteracy eradication attempts have failed at all levels almost all over the country in significantly reducing the illiteracy level in Yemen during the last 30 years. The main reason behind this is seen as the ignorance of the government. The issues of education and health have always been given less attention and low fiscal budget allocation. The low number of NGOs working in the field of illiteracy eradication is also not helping the issue at all.
Another factor is the weak self-motivation of illiterate Yemenis to join illiteracy eradication courses. At a time college graduates cannot find employment, the elderly people don’t see any advantage in enrolling in education classes. The media organizations, particularly TV and radio have had a passive role in spreading awareness to encourage illiteracy eradication. The difficulty in eradicating illiteracy reaches its peak in rural areas where farmers barely have the time to work on their farms to make both ends meet. They have no leisure time to go to classes, unless they are given some sort of financial incentive.
The national strategy approved by the government also has its own set of problems and obstacles. The two main challenges according to Fawziya Noman are:
1- The insufficient financial resources allocated to illiteracy eradication programs.
2- Weak public participation in the program, especially when government offices don’t encourage their staff members to join these programs.
How to Ensure that Illiteracy is Eradicated
Can Yemen do in a few years what it has failed to do during the past 30 years? Can the Yemeni population, which lived in total isolation for tens of years in conditions of poverty, disease, and illiteracy, agree to involve themselves in a solid eradication program?
It is funny to see that the limited resources of these dedicated organizations are spent on the elderly folks to teach them how to read and write while children are seen escaping classes and turning illiterate in the era of information technology. Wouldn’t it have been more justifiable to allocate this money for the young masses to ensure the coming generations are well educated and trained to cope with the world around them, rather than spending it on the elderly who are not convinced of the idea from the start?
If the limited funds are spent on the elderly, while the coming generations are not being educated, it will eventually turn out to be a waste of money. Shouldn’t we concentrate on the coming generations and ensure that education is compulsory for every single child that is born in Yemen? If we ensure that every child gets a good education and is being sent to school as soon as he/she reaches the appropriate age, then we will be securing a 0% illiteracy within a few years time.
Ms. Fawziya stated that appropriate steps should be taken in the coming years if we are to eradicate illiteracy forever. Some of these are:
1- Activate the governmental institutions that follow-up the issue of literacy to ensure that children are being educated and enrolled into classes, and the older children are sent to illiteracy eradication centers.
2- Pay more attention to the non-governmental establishments and organizations working in this particular field by giving them more support to facilitate their work.
3- Promote awareness campaigns on the importance of education and use the official media of TV and radio in this direction.
4- Urge the different ministries to cooperate on eradicating illiteracy. In particular, the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labor should cooperate to reduce the illiteracy rate in Yemen.
5- Prevent the influential persons’ unjustified occupation of some illiteracy eradication centers, and use them for the purpose they are intended . This is truly a shameful act that needs strong action by the government.
Ms. Suad Al-Absi, Chairman of the Yemen Women Union said, “Getting rid of illiteracy requires more effort and cooperation. It requires the effective implementation of the national strategy by the government and authorities concerned.”Indeed, the issue of illiteracy should be given all the attention and support by the leadership as it is a direct factor behind Yemen’s progress. The high illiteracy rate continues to hinder the economic development, and will continue to do so unless serious steps are undertaken. After all, illiteracy is what puts us at the end of the list of developing nations, and is the major reason for our backwardness.