Yemen’s education system at a tipping point: Youth between their future and present survival

Mareike Transfeld, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and Societies

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 29,“Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen.”  [1]

The war that has tormented Yemen for over two years is putting 4.5 Yemeni children and youth at risk of being completely deprived of an education. Next to the deteriorating security, the destitute economic situation is currently putting enormous stress on the country’s already weak educational system. Nearly half of the country’s population is under the age of 18.[2] Their future is immediately intertwined with the future of Yemen. On the one hand, the lack of education leads to the militarization of communities. On the other hand, without a proper education, Yemen’s new generations will not be able to shoulder the future burden of reconstructing the economy and state that are currently being destroyed, see Carapico in this collection. Problems contributing to the deterioration of education in Yemen are not entirely new, but rather exacerbated by the ongoing war. In fact, the war reverses all progress that has been made in Yemen in terms of the quality and quantity of education provision.

Prewar challenges to Yemen’s education system

A modern education system was established in the Arab Republic of Yemen, as well as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the 1960s. The universities of Sana’a and Aden were established in the 1970s. When the two states unified in 1990, measures were taken to unify the two education systems. Since the 1990s, the education systems particularly expanded, with, for instance, five additional universities founded in Dhamar, Mukalla, al-Hudeidah, Taiz, and Ibb. In northern Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood influenced the educational system through appointments to the ministry of education. When the Islamist Islah party was established in 1990 after the unification of north and south Yemen, eventually forming a coalition government with the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) immediately, it used a parallel system of religious schools across the country to Islamize society in formerly socialist southern Yemen.[3] The relatively high education expenditure in the late 1990s can also be understood in the context of Yemeni patronage politics; teachers and academics were appointed to public institutions based on their affiliation with the GPC and political standing.[4] Generally, schools and universities were also used as a means to recruit young party members.

Nevertheless, Yemen was still able to make progress since the 1990s. The youth literacy rate (15 to 24 year olds) increased from 82.8 percent in 1994 to 97.6 percent in 2015 for males and from 35.4 to 82.8 for females.[5] Despite this progress, Yemen still struggles with a gender disparity, as well as an urban-rural divide, with lower enrollment rates and fewer schools in rural areas. According to a survey of 1500 Yemenis between the age of 15 and 25 implemented by the Yemen Polling Center in July 2017, 21 percent of those females who had to quit their training did so because of the long distances they must travel. It is particularly difficult to encourage teachers to go into the rural areas.[6] A lack of teachers in general, and qualified teachers specifically, results not only in overcrowded classes but also in poor quality education. Schools also often lack the most rudimentary infrastructure and resources, including libraries, bathrooms, proper furniture, or school books. For instance, only 61 percent of the females have a girls’ bathroom at their school, with 96 percent finding it necessary to have one. This compares to 63 percent of the males having a boys’ bathroom and 92 percent stating that there should be one. Only 34 percent have access to a library at their school with most of these being in urban areas.

The effects of war on the education system

The war that Yemen is engulfed in has devastated the country’s already fragile education system. When the Saudi-led coalition first militarily intervened in Yemen in March 2015, 3,600 schools across the country initially closed, adding 1.8 million students to the 1.6 million school-aged children out of school. When schools re-opened in November 2015, the doors of 1,600 schools remained shuttered. According to UNICEF estimates, 1000 of these schools were damaged and 184 were used as shelter for people displaced by violence.[7] Some of the destroyed schools were replaced with makeshift schools, they are often outdoors or a have rudimentary infrastructure only. While there have been 52 reported attacks on schools by parties of the conflict, forcing students out of school, the general increase of violence also prevents some families from sending their kids off to school. Of the youth between 15 and 25 years old, 26 percent spend more time at home as a consequence of the war. In the northern governorates, airstrikes by the Arab alliance threaten the personal security of the respondents the most (27 percent). In the southern governorates, the spread of robbery, kidnapping, and assassinations are reported as the greatest threat (23 percent) to young people between 15 and 25.

The one factor that currently puts the most stress on the educational system is the salary crisis. Yemeni children and youth were set to begin the new school year on September 30, 2017, but 12,240 of the 15,826 schools in Yemen remained empty, as teachers laid down their work to protest unpaid salaries.[8] Since the takeover of the capital Sana’a and its various financial institutions, the payment of the public sector wage bill had been a point of conflict between the two warring parties, the Houthi-Saleh alliance and the internationally recognized government headed by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. This has led to 166,443 teachers not having received their salaries in over a year.[9] The Central Bank, now responsible for paying salaries, remained as neutral as it could since the outset of the Saudi-led military intervention in March 2015 and subsequent escalation of violence throughout the country, as it continued to pay public servants as well as military personnel on both sides of the front. The public sector wage bill, already bloated with ghost workers still on the books from the patronage politics during former President Saleh’s reign, continued to swell as Houthis added individuals to the military’s payroll in an attempt to integrate their fighters into the state institution. The Houthis also retained a part of the salaries as a “war tax.” With the most heavily populated areas under the control of the Houthis, as well as the actual public sector salary lists being in ministries under control of this non-state actor, the Hadi government saw itself at a disadvantaged position and in September 2016 moved the central bank to Aden. As a result, paying public servants’ salaries has become ever more difficult, with teachers in the north not receiving their salaries at all and those in southern governorates receiving irregular or low salaries.

It is not just teachers who are lacking their salaries, but a total of 1.2 million Yemenis on the public sector wage bill, who are now struggling to provide for their households, which in Yemen includes on average 7 people. This, in addition to the increased prices of basic commodities, including food, water, and fuel, puts families under severe pressure. 43 percent said that their “families are suffering a lot from the increase of prices for food, medicine and fuel,” while 9 percent said their families were not able to buy these items. Consequently, many young Yemenis drop out of school because their parents cannot afford the costs. At present, 42 percent of the 15-25 year olds are enrolled in school or university, with 35 percent having dropped out before receiving a secondary degree. Often the youths that are taken out of school are expected to contribute to their families’ financially.

Youth labor in the context of war

Currently, 10 percent of the young Yemenis between the age of 15 and 25 generate an income with which they can support their families: 2 percent are employed fulltime and 8 percent are working as day laborers. With government salaries not being paid and the deterioration of the economy, youth see few to no job opportunities in the current situation and feel marginalized within their communities. The few opportunities that are mentioned by youth to exist are in agriculture, self-employment in construction or transportation, as well as selling of Qat. Many youth believe they should contribute to their families through establishing small projects; however, they often lack financial resources to do so. One interviewee stated that to help their families youth should perform any jobs, regardless of whether they are appropriate. Unfortunately, this circumstance not only led to an increase of child labor, but also created fertile ground for the recruitment of underage Yemeni boys to the military and militias. Abdulrahman, a 26 years old from al-Hodeidah stated: “There are many stories but most of them are generally about the inability of the heads of the households to provide the basic needs for education such as notebooks and other tools and costs. In many cases, sons stop going to school and work on the streets, looking for a living either from begging or working on Qat markets. I personally know many children who are supposed to be in school but they dropped out and join militias.” According to UNICEF, in the past two years 1572 boys were recruited and used in the conflict, which increased from 850 in the last year.[10] Against the backdrop of the education crisis, the Minister of Youth and Sports of the Houthi-Saleh government in Sana’a suggested on October 21, 2017 on Facebook that schools could be closed and schoolchildren and teachers sent to reinforce Houthi fighters.[11] While many of the boys are motivated by the salaries they receive, many families perceive the fighting on the side of either of the conflict parties as a national duty. Consequently, many also join the ranks of the fighters for ideological reasons.

Girls are seen to be unable to contribute to families financially. This becomes clear in the survey results, with only 1 percent being part-time employed and 2 percent unemployed but looking for a job, only 2 percent of the females between 15 and 25 are or would consider becoming part of the workforce. For that reason, girls and young women are at risk to be married off in exchange for a dowry to support the families financially. More than two thirds of girls are married off underage.[12] This increased from 50 percent before the conflict escalated in 2015. Girls in Yemen are generally at high risk of being taken out of school early; a circumstance that is further exacerbated by the war. They are expected to learn household tasks and are involved in the fetching of water and other resources. Of the females surveyed, 19 percent are illiterate and have not received a formal education, while 18 percent have not received any education higher then elementary level. The levels of education among males, in contrast, is much higher. Only 3 percent have not received a formal education and are illiterate, and 12 percent did not receive an education higher than elementary school. However, on a positive note, the percentages of the young women who do pursue university education is only slightly lower than the percentages of males.

Communities in Yemen are aware of the importance of education for the future development of youth and the country. The value of education is acknowledged by 43 percent youth, who believe that education at least somewhat prepares them for a good future, while 8 percent claim it does not prepare them at all. Although many teachers have not received their salaries in over a year, schools have been able to continue their operations, often due to the engagement of parent councils, civil society organizations, or the private sector. For example, on October 27, 2017, the chairman of a Yemeni company in the tourism sector announced that it would pay the salaries of 86 teachers and principals in an area around Taiz until state salaries would resume. In other cases, parent councils collected money from parents within the communities in order to keep schools operating. The education system has the potential to counter these trends, but any solutions to the crisis are currently only to be found on the community level. The lack of opportunities for young people within their communities also results in sentiments of despair and depression. Therefore, to counteract the radicalization of communities, thwart early marriage, and give Yemen’s young generation the opportunity for a better future, the international community must support the educational system and enable Yemen’s children and youth to attend classes. The present engagement of civil society, as well as international organizations in the field of education is a useful starting point. The importance of education for youth development as well as for the prospective rebuilding of the state must also be reinforced within the communities. Local structures that assist schools, such as parent councils, must be supported, not only in regards to the question of how school operations can be sustained, but also with regards to how communities can ensure the safety of children and youth in school. 

[1] This paper contain data collected through a survey conducted by the Yemen Polling Center among youth between the ages of 15 and 25 in May 2017, part of which will be published in the report, ”Coming of Age in a Fragmented State: Everyday Struggles and Perspectives of Yemeni Youth.”

[2] See UNICEF (2017) Yemen: At a Glance., checked on December 7, 2017.

[3] Bonnefoy, Laurent (2010) Yemen. In Guide to Islamist Movements Volume 2, Barry Rubin (Ed.) p. 424.

[4] Phillips, Sarah (2008) Yemen’s Democracy experiment in Regional Perspective: Patronage and Pluralized Authoritarianism, p. 192. For education expenditures see Yuki, Takako (2003) Distribution of public education spending for the poor: The case of Yemen. In Asia Pacific Education Review 4/2, pp 129-139, p. 130. In 2012, the unity government under President Hadi proposed a bill that would allow the appointment of university faculty on the basis of merit and seniority. The rejection on part of the GPC reform initiative led to a boycott of the Joint Meeting Party of parliamentary sessions, see YPC (2013) Evaluating Parliament Performance (November 2011-January 2013). Available online:–January-2013).pdf, checked on December 7, 2017, p. 25.

[5] UIS (2013): Adult and Youth literacy. National, regional and global trends, 1985-2015. Available online:, checked on 21/11/2017, p. 39.

[6] p. 14.

[7] UNICEF (2017): Falling Through the Cracks: The Children of Yemen. Available Online:, checked on December 7, 2017, p. 9.

[8] Shukri, Muhammad (2017) Yemen’s unpaid teachers strike as education crisis deepens. BBC News. Available online:, checked on December 7, 2017.

[9] Shukri, Muhammad (2017) Yemen’s unpaid teachers strike as education crisis deepens. BBC News. Available online:, checked on December 7, 2017.

[10] UNICEF (2017): Falling Through the Cracks: The Children of Yemen. Available Online:, checked on December 7, 2017, p. 2.

[11] The New Arab (2017) Houthi minister tells Yemen school kids to drop pens and pick up rifles. Available online, checked December 7, 2017.

[12] UNICEF (2017): Falling Through the Cracks: The Children of Yemen. Available Online:, checked on December 7, 2017, p. 2.