Today, March 8th 2022, is International Women's Day. This year's theme is 'Break the Bias' – raising awareness about the bias which holds women back, whether it is deliberate or unconscious.
At Muslim Hands, we are committed to breaking the bias in a variety of ways, including providing girls with education, vocational training, livelihoods, health care and safe spaces. You can learn more about our women-focused projects by checking out our social media today.
In this article, we will focus on how we are breaking the bias in Yemen's schools, helping girls overcome the obstacles of conflict, famine and widespread poverty.
1. Context: Early marriage and child labour in Yemen
In 2019, UNICEF released a report that 4 million Yemeni girls got married before the age of 18. Of these, 1.4 million were younger than 15.
The link between conflict, poverty and child marriage was already well-known before this report. Between 2017 and 2018, OCHA reported a threefold increase in under-18 marriages in Yemen. We've seen a similar situation in Syria - parents can't afford to provide for their daughters or protect them, so they get them married in the hopes that their in-laws can look after them.
UNICEF's report called early marriage a 'negative coping strategy' - often stemming from the need to survive the humanitarian nightmare which Yemen has become. Similarly, our team on the ground report that boys have been forced to work early - again, to help their families cope with food shortages and the high price of food and water.
2. Conflict: Why does education matter during a humanitarian crisis?
In such a dire situation, you may be wondering: how can we talk about breaking the bias in Yemen's schools, when Yemeni children can't even eat? Surely the priority is to feed girls rather than educate them? Wouldn't this be a better way to solve the problem of early marriage as well?
However, these questions overlook three important things:
Firstly, the Yemeni conflict has been ongoing for seven years. It is unrealistic to suggest that its citizens stay in 'survival mode' for this long, only giving them food and water and not allowing them to live their lives.
Secondly, feeding girls and protecting girls go hand-in-hand with educating girls. As pictured above, girls may receive school meals, often solving two problems. Moreover, when they have a formal education and life skills, girls are more independent and able to advocate for themselves, and their parents are less likely to view early marriage as the path they should take.
Thirdly, Yemeni girls and women want to be educated. We also need to break the bias that the international community somehow knows what is better for women in Yemen. Listening to Yemen's women and giving them the dignity and agency to choose the solution for themselves - that is our true role as a humanitarian organisation.
In Ma'rib, our team spoke to Zainab (pictured above), a 14-year old student at the Ruqayyah School for Girls. Originally from Sana'a, her family fled conflict and they now live in a tent on the roof of a block of flats. Our team visited Zainab's family where her mother, Hakima, explained the dangerous living situation.
'When it is windy our tents get destroyed. Or when it rains we have no way to remove the excess water'.
Hakima's daughter-in-law, Umni, said, 'I hate this place because I lost my child here'. Her three-year old son was playing on top of the roof but he accidentally slipped and fell to his death. 'When my son died I wanted to go back home. But there is a war and I can’t. I feel stuck'.
Even without proper shelter or regular access to food, Zainab's family still firmly believe her education is a priority. They give her time and space to do her homework, despite her poor studying conditions, and they have hope that her hard work will benefit the whole family.
'50 years ago, it wasn’t common for girls to go to school. But without an education your opportunities are limited', Hakima says.
Our team also spoke to Sumayyah, another displaced student in Ma'rib, who doesn't allow the conflict to dampen her ambition - she just makes sure she is realistic.
'I don't have anything, so I am grateful that I can at least go to school and get an education', Sumayyah says. 'We understand that the city can’t cope because of the influx of IDPs and what we have now is good enough. I want to become an Assistant Doctor when I’m older - it would be hard to become a doctor with this quality of education. I need to be realistic'.
Zainab, Sumayyah and their families understand the importance of their education for the future of their families and the country. For them, the bias is already broken - girls must be educated for the benefit of everyone.
3. Case study: 'I want my daughter to have a better life than me'
For other Yemeni families, the bias has not been broken yet.
Remember: UNICEF reported that 1.4 million girls got married under the age of 15. The study showed that some communities were suspicious of attempts to raise awareness about this issue. They worried that, rather than protecting adolescent girls and giving them independence, UN agencies were replacing Yemeni culture and encouraging girls to ignore their families and disregard family hierarchy. Views were split. Some religious leaders are educating the community on the healthy development of adolescent girls and the risk of gender-based violence. Other religious leaders refuse to raise early marriage as a problem.
However, context is also important. Firstly, while people like Zainab's mother are willing to put in the long-term effort of educating her for a better future, other families may be more desperate and unable to plan long-term: they can't feed their children now, so they won't think of education as a helpful solution.
Secondly, even for those parents who want to educate their girls, it is unlikely they will be living near a functioning school.
Moreover, only around a third of schools offer school meals and many have inadequate water facilities and latrines. The burden of providing school resources is often on families - who can barely afford food. And many of the teachers on a government salary are not being paid because of the economic impact of the conflict.
Therefore, it is a big commitment for a Yemeni parent to educate their daughter, hoping that one day she will graduate and get a good job in the midst of a war zone. It is unsurprising that many parents see early marriage as an equally viable solution - though it carries risks, they hope that their in-laws will at least feed their daughter and take responsibility for her safety.
However, when our team interviewed mothers like Finnah (pictured with her daughter below), the solution was clear. If we offer parents schools near them, with paid teachers, safe classrooms and school meals - they will send their daughters.
Finnah is a widowed mother of five boys and two girls. She told us that, while conflict and poverty made it difficult to educate her children, she believes that school is ultimately the route to improving their lives.
'My older children dropped out because they had to provide for the family. But I see the difference in Baraha and I am so grateful she goes here [to our Aden School of Excellence]', Finnah said. 'She used to go to a public school and we have noticed that her mood is better and she is excited to go to school now. Her grades have also improved. Baraha wants to be a doctor and I hope her dreams come true. Her older sister has graduated in business management'.
Finnah got married young and never got the chance to study. She knows the risks and difficulties of that life and she wants better for her own daughters. Yemeni women are ready to break the bias, but they don't have the funds they need.
Thanks to our supporters, we are providing school meals in existing schools, constructing new classrooms and schools and running our own Aden School of Excellence. There is still much more work to be done - but first, let's take a look at some of these projects and how they are already making a difference.
4. Aden School of Excellence: Providing safety and encouragement to girls
In September 2021, Muslim Hands opened the Aden School of Excellence for orphans. The efforts of our donors and our team on the ground have created a truly amazing project in the midst of a war zone.
Siham Muhammad, the school's headteacher, has 28 years of teaching experience. She says, 'I have met orphans at other schools and they have no support. Here they have food, a medical clinic and supportive teachers. Orphans need special care and so we have teachers who give one-on-one time for students to catch up'.
The attitude of the school's teachers is just as impressive as its facilities. They are determined to make this place safe and nurturing. These children have already been in 'survival mode' for too long; here, their dreams will be encouraged.
Siham told us, 'When I was at school we were punished. Here, we are violence-free. One child shouted at a teacher and we called the parent in. And we saw the parent shout at the child and we told her to stop this pattern'.
One of the teachers, Geeza, added, 'Staff members here are really caring and that was the reason they were chosen. During the war, one of the things that was lost was the morals of the children. We hope that children receive the best they can and that we can implement morals and goodness in them'.
Both girls and boys are thus learning from primary-school age that, just because they have grown up around violence, it doesn't mean this cycle must continue. The school offers them a break from the war in seemingly small ways - bright murals on the walls, playing games in the playground, the occasional treat of cake with the school meals - giving these children the chance to have a childhood.
Projects like the Aden School of Excellence clearly demonstrate that emergency relief cannot be the only priority when we are sending help to Yemen. These girls and boys are growing up in a war zone, but they still have the right to be respected, encouraged and nurtured. This will give them the ability to not only aim for a better future, but also advocate for themselves.
5. Ruqayyah School for Girls: Breaking the bias with food
Here in the UK, we tend to think of 'breaking the bias' in terms of equal pay, equal opportunities in the workplace and other issues along those lines. But many women face a bias in something even more basic: access to food.
According to the World Food Programme, gender inequality is a both caused by hunger and impacted by hunger. It is estimated that 60% of chronically hungry people are women and girls.
Aside from living in an impoverished community, the reasons for this also include:
- They may have less access to education or employment, meaning they can't afford to provide themselves with food. This could be because they are occupied with time-consuming labour like collecting water, or because there are no education opportunities in the area, or because they married early and couldn't study.
- Biologically, women are more likely to be malnourished, especially if they’re menstruating, pregnant, or lactating. [FAO]
- Divorce rates have been shown to rise during food shortages, leaving women and children to fend for themselves.
When sending food to a famine-struck area, it is always important to make sure women and girls aren't being discriminated against - that women-headed households, pregnant and lactating women and adolescent girls are getting special attention so they don't go hungry. One of the ways to do this is to provide free school meals at girls schools.
At the Ruqayyah School for Girls in Ma'rib, we spoke to the school manager, Suaad Abdul Qadir.
She said, 'Of the 3,140 girls that come to this school, over 80% of the students are displaced. Muslim Hands gives them proper food and this means parents have one less thing to worry about. The children that come here from IDP backgrounds initially find it difficult and are extremely shy, but they slowly open up and are more confident'.
Not only is this protecting girls against malnutrition and hunger, it also ensures parents are more likely to send their girls to school.
6. Hope: It begins with the international community
So far, we’ve discussed how educating Yemeni girls is important for preventing early marriage and empowering young women with a voice. To continue breaking the bias we need to make sure we listen to the girls and women in the communities we work in, learn what biases they want to break and follow their lead in solving problems.
They have the motivation and the determination, but it is the international community which can give them hope for the future. Your donations will transform their lives, giving them the chance to fight the struggles of conflict, famine and poverty.
Here's how you can help:
- Provide school meals to a Yemeni child for £12.50 a month
- Sponsor a Yemeni orphan for £29.50 a month
- Give any amount to our Yemen Emergency Fund to help us support students and construct new schools
Muslim Hands is an award-winning charity, established in 1993 to provide emergency relief and tackle the root causes of poverty. We hope this article was useful to you! Please share it with others to help us break the bias on International Women's Day and raise funds for girls in Yemen. Click here to learn more about our work in Yemen.