Transforming the World of Children Living in Conflict

November 28, 2012

DSC_0082 Breaking down the barriers to literacy in a conflict country is one of the great development challenges of the 21st century. And one that Yemen is not alone in tackling. Save the Children estimates nearly 40 million children worldwide are kept from learning due to armed conflict. In Yemen, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates some 300,000 children out of school due to armed conflict. These children face a bleak future, forced to neglect dreams of becoming teachers, doctors, engineers, or any other profession that requires true literacy. Limited access to education creates a vicious cycle for illiterate non-skilled youth making them vulnerable to recruitment by militant groups and to becoming part of the conflict.

While attending a recent USAID-supported Community Livelihoods Project (CLP) training in Sana’a, Yemen, I was struck by one question posed to some 25 trainees by the lecturer, “Who doesn’t remember their first teacher?” I can’t say exactly if I remember my first grade teacher, but deep in the recesses of my mind, I do recall either my kindergarten or first grade teacher introducing me to reading. That teacher helped me take one of the most profound steps in my existence – the leap from illiteracy to reading and the opening of a world full of possibilities.

In February 2012, Yemen embarked on a new era in its history with the successful referendum-like election of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi. At the time, the country seemed to be on the verge of having its own Arab Spring. However, the continued presence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the conflict, in particular in the South’s Abyan governorate where government forces deployed to drive out militants, underscored that Yemen remained a fragile state. It is estimated some 150,000 people fled their homes for neighboring Aden and Lahj governorates where they occupied 74 schools to set up temporary shelters. This meant that neither the internally displaced children from Abyan were in school, nor the children of Aden had schools to attend.

The rate of illiteracy in Yemen is already quite high, and the ongoing conflicts across the country prevent increasing numbers of children from attending school. In the Saada governorate in the north in 2009 and 2010, 725 schools were closed during five months of fighting between government forces and Houthi rebels, and 220 schools were destroyed. There is growing concern that the destruction or unavailability of school infrastructure and qualified teachers may destroy the hopes and ambitions of an entire generation of Yemeni children. They may never experience that magical moment when they progress to become readers and embark on a journey that transforms their lives.

There is also strong evidence that even the children in school are in need of improving their reading skills. The very low performance of 4th graders on The Trend in International Mathematics and Science (TTIMS) study assessment in 2003 and 2007 determined that 1st to 3rd graders are not learning to read. Upon investigation of the study’s results, UNDP reported that Yemeni teachers explained students’ low performance as a consequence of their inability to read test questions.

TTIMS and other studies have consistently shown poor performance in reading of Yemeni children, causing the Ministry of Education to make improvements in reading scores a national priority. Working with the Ministry, CLP has developed materials and is training Master Trainers from governorates, such as Abyan, who will in turn train teachers at the school level.

The project is not only training teachers in how to best teach children to read, but also is rehabilitating classrooms and increasing parental and community support to schools and reading. Through its Education sector, CLP expects to improve the reading achievement of 125,000 school children in grades 1 to 3 resulting from the improved teaching methods and materials for 10,000 teachers.

“I am an Arabic language specialist but have never introduced the Arabic Alphabet in such a way; curricula always focus on the letter name and that’s what makes the students confused when it comes to blending the sounds into words. Early Grade Reading focuses on the letter sounds and common words that enable kids to blend the sound into words,” said Dekra Saeed, one of CLP’s Master Trainers who will go on to train teachers at the school level. “The method has an excellent approach– it’s easy, and I have even started using it with my own daughter.”

Woman_Child-443x800 CLP’s support will help the Yemeni Ministry of Education to develop its curriculum and teacher training modules for early grade reading, ultimately improving the ministry’s capacity to implement a nationwide, effective reading curriculum.
“The CLP program is scripted: most teachers have no background in teaching reading, what to do, what to say, how to incorporate ways kids respond. The Early Grade Reading technique has been proven in many African countries and within three or four months, kids are effective readers,” said Sandra Hollingsworth, International Reading Specialist and Senior Associate at Creative which is implementing the CLP project.

“The children can read words and understand their meaning and provide answers to inferential questions. For instance, there is a story of a mother sewing a button on her daughter’s coat. The child while playing loses the button and is very sad and apprehensive about going home. But, when she does return home, her mother simply says next time I will use stronger thread. It’s a simple story but one which a child who does not read will not understand.”

Capitalizing on 21st century technology, CLP also sends text messages to parents ensuring children are reading at home. “Incorporating parents into the process brings to the community that literacy is important,” said Hollingsworth. “This enables individuals to evaluate and entertain different perspectives, so reading is essential to conflict countries and not a luxury.”

The 1987 Nobel Peace Laureate and former President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias Sánchez, noted, “An investment today in the education of a child is a source of economic growth, improved public health, and greater social mobility for the future.” This is a challenge that the CLP project in Yemen is taking on one step at a time.

— Alexandra Pratt, Communications and Outreach Officer

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