As the streets of Sana’a flooded with thousands of pro-democracy protesters in early 2011—radically transforming business, politics and life as usual—Salwa Al-Azzani and her team worked to deliver quality education to Yemeni students despite the upheaval.
“After the revolution in 2011, almost the entire team would work under pressure,” says Salwa, who, at the time, served as a communications and gender equity coordinator for a USAID-funded education initiative.
A national gasoline shortage made field visits to rural schools difficult and electricity cuts interrupted work. But Salwa, a relentless champion for equal education access, could not be stopped, despite a revolution and years of instability.
“I believe that Yemenis deserve to have quality education. It’s the basic right of every child,” she says. “The huge challenges, especially in education, facing our communities require dedication and hard work from every individual in Yemen.”
Salwa believes education is the path to a brighter future for Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world where radical extremism has taken root.
“There will be no development in Yemen if boys and girls don’t get the proper education,” she declares. “Our communities will not be able to fight poverty and extremism without education.”
Salwa is doing her part—from organizing a nationwide public awareness campaign promoting reading to developing early grade reading training materials for parents and life-skills books for children—all as part of her work with USAID-funded education projects.
An opportunity for Yemen’s girls
Salwa—who served from 2012 to 2015 as the education, gender and communications specialist for the Yemen Early Grade Reading Approach, a USAID-funded project implemented by Creative Associates International to enhance education and literacy—faces many challenges.
Nearly 30 percent of Yemeni children who begin primary school do not complete it, according to UNESCO data from 2013. For girls, the primary school dropout rate is close to 40 percent. Around 48 percent of adolescent girls of secondary school age are not enrolled, according to UNESCO data from 2012.
As the daughter of a diplomat, Salwa, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English language in 2012 from Saba University in Sana’a, reaped the benefits of quality education. But she knows it is an opportunity unavailable to many Yemenis, particularly girls in impoverished and traditional communities.
Through field visits to remote rural schools, she has seen firsthand these barriers facing women and girls.
“I noticed that the schools and community have given different treatment to boys and girls; boys were always given the priority in everything, and girls do all the house chores. As a result, girls always miss the opportunity to join formal education,” she explains.
Her first field visit as an education specialist in 2005 to an isolated district in Marib governorate has stuck with her for years. In three palm-frond huts in the desert, dozens of students, mostly boys, sat on the floor of a makeshift school with no books and one broken blackboard.
Salwa also noticed that the village women and girls rose at dawn and returned at sunset, working nonstop to herd sheep, fetch water and take care of their homes. In this village, she committed to expanding access to education, especially for girls, to provide a pathway away from traditional gender roles and toward independence.
Dedicated to changing attitudes and practices that hurt girls’ chances of achieving an education, Salwa took the lead in supporting the Ministry of Education in developing the first-ever national gender sensitization training materials for teachers, principals and parent councils.
The materials provide practical methods—using real-life examples and successes—to ensure equal opportunities for girls in school. To more effectively reach a traditional community, Salwa integrated a religious approach for gender equality into the materials.
With her leadership, many schools formed girls’ empowerment groups. One school principal in Zabid even dedicated a whole book of poems about girls’ education to Salwa, who says she is motivated by seeing more girls enroll and return after dropping out.
Through her writing and photography—including a documentary she helped to produce on the Yemen Early Grade Reading Approach—Salwa has raised awareness nationwide about the education challenges facing girls and other marginalized children.
Despite this success, her work is not done.
“I will continue to provide my full support until girls and women in Yemen get their full rights like [in] other developing countries,” she promises.
More schools than weapons
In March 2015, conflict erupted again in Yemen—shattering communities and creating an unprecedented humanitarian disaster. Civilians continue to lack adequate food, medicine and other critical aid.
For Salwa, interrupted education is one of the many tragedies of this war.
“As a result of the current war, life almost stopped and schools closed. No children could go to school,” she laments.
The insecurity and severe shortage of fuel and electricity make it nearly impossible to implement education activities. Many teachers have relocated in search of security, and communication with schools, donors and project teams is erratic due to power outages.
But Salwa, like her country, is resilient and hopeful. Yemen has experienced conflict before and has rebounded. Her country, she notes, was once a great center for learning in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
“We had the most famous poets and scholars. It shows how our grandfathers gave special attention to education,” she says. “Unfortunately, today we have more weapons than schools. I wish I could destroy these weapons with my own hands and build schools instead. I wish every Yemeni child, whether boy or girl, could go to school and have access to quality education.”
By Jillian Slutzker