President Obama has unveiled the Feed the Future program to attack the global hunger and poverty crisis. For this initiative to succeed, it has to supply children with the foundation for their future — food and education.
That is why a UN World Food Programme (WFP) effort to provide take-home rations for school children in Yemen is so critical. WFP had originally planned to provide rations for about 115,000 girls, to be distributed at school.
The food serves as an incentive for parents to send their children to school. The girls receive their education and return home with food for the family, which acts as a stabilizing force as they try to break out of the hunger and poverty trap.
In the first year of the program, attendance among girls in the participating schools went up 60 percent. But this success was short-lived. The "silent tsunami" of high food prices in 2008 forced a reduction in rations. But things would get worse.
Lack of funding for WFP forced a complete suspension of Food for Education in June 2009. WFP monitoring confirms that dropout rates have increased since then.
Finally, in April/May of 2010 WFP and Yemen's Ministry of Education were able to distribute food to more than 80,200 school girls and their 562,000 family members. This was a limited distribution and the size of their rations was also reduced because of the funding shortfalls. Without new funding, there will probably be no more distributions this year, and no expansion of school feeding.
School feeding for all children would do so much to provide stability in Yemen. This is especially true in Saada, a governorate in the north, which is trying to forge a peace process following the conflict there between government and rebels. School meals are an important stop on the road to peace.
When you combine this school feeding with building local food production capacity, you help both children and the economy. So it's vital that school feeding initiatives like the one in Yemen don't get derailed because of lack of funding.
Maria Santamarina, a WFP officer in Yemen, visited schools in the Rayma governorate that took part in the May Food for Education distribution. She describes the school district there and shares some stories of the students who have benefited from WFP. Her report shows the importance of why children in Yemen need nourishment for their bodies and minds. Here is her report:
Balad Al Taam District, Rayma Governorate
The school is located in an arid, mountainous region. Most children have to walk 1-2 hours each morning to reach the school, and return home by foot. Children are taught Koran, Arabic, math and science, history, and even English.
The name of the area, Balad al Taam – meaning land of food – is ironic as the area is in fact the most food insecure in Yemen with extremely high levels of poverty and malnutrition. According to WFP’s recent Comprehensive Food Security Survey, more than half of the area’s population – 53% – is acutely hungry.
There is no nearby health center, pharmacy, or market. The area is home only to a primary school, a mosque, and a dukkan – local shop.
Classrooms are overcrowded, and most children sit on the floor. Some must study outside for lack of rooms, and find it very difficult to concentrate due to hunger combined with the pounding of the hot sun. “We come anyways because we like studying,” said one of the second grade boys sitting outside; “school is important and we like to acquire knowledge. We are particularly happy today because our sisters are receiving food.”
Here children dream of being doctors, teachers, principals, and even pilots. For most, this dream will never come true. The schools serve grades 1-9; however, [they] do not have the capacity to provide secondary education.
Claude, Anwar School, Balad Al Taam District, Rayma Governorate
Claude is 9 years old in her 4th year at Anwar school. Every morning she wakes up early in order to walk across the dry, mountainous area to reach school, a one hour distance each way. She loves school and hopes to be able to continue and complete her education in order to fulfill her dream of being a teacher. Claude has eight siblings, two are older and the rest are younger. Five of her siblings – three sisters and two brothers – also attend Anwar school. Her father is a soldier.
When Claude is not in school she likes to study, play with her friends, and help her mom cook. Her family mostly eats bread and beans, with occasionally chicken. Claude’s favorite food – meat – is rarely eaten due to the high cost.
In May 2010 WFP provided food to the girls attending classes in Anwar school under the agency’s intervention promoting girls’ education. She has received food from WFP twice before, including wheat grain, vegetable oil, and dates – the latter an in kind contribution from KSA. “Thanks to the WFP programme all the girls in my village attend school.”
Arwa, Anwar School, Balad Al Taam District, Rayma Governorate
Arwa is in her second year at Anwar school. Like many Yemenis, she does not know her exact age, as child births usually take place in the home and are not registered.
Arwa must walk very far each day to reach school, but she enjoys learning – particularly Koran, her favorite subject. She dreams of becoming a doctor.
She and her five siblings – three brothers and two sisters – live with their mother. Their father works as a casual laborer in Saudi Arabia in the hopes of being able to send money home.
For Arwa and her family, money and food is very limited, and they rely on bread and milk for all meals.
Due to significant funding shortfalls facing WFP, school girls under the 2009-10 academic year received only 1 of 3 planned distributions. Limited funding also meant that during the May distribution, only girls in grade 3 and above received food, as opposed to grades 2 and above; moreover, rations for those receiving food were reduced due to insufficient commodities.
“The most important part of my going to school is to receive the support provided by WFP; we need this food for our home.” Arwa will not receive food in May, due to the limited resources; however, her older sister who attends Anwar school will benefit from the support.
Saadam Barak, Anwar School, Balad Al Taam District, Rayma Governorate
Saadam is in 6th grade at Anwar school. The class consists of 20 girls and 16 boys, most around the ages of 11-12 years old.
At 36 years old, Saadam stands out as she greets you with smiling eyes behind her black niqab. Married at the age of 15, her husband had refused to allow her to continue her studies because the school was mixed gender.
However, when WFP began providing support to the school, her husband decided it was no problem for his wife to return to school. “Thanks to the food and support provided, my husband realized the importance of education for our future. I now have hopes of becoming a teacher or a doctor.”
Hyat, Fyaza, Amina, and Amal – Ninth Grade
In the empty, open air stairwell of the school sits a group of girls ranging in age from 13-18 years of age. They sit in the stairwell because there are not enough classrooms for all the students. Here they study English, Koran, math, and science.
On this day, all the boys are absent. The girls’ parents are not happy that the school is mixed gender; however, they continue to send their daughters to school thanks to the support provided by WFP. The girls all come from farming families, who work on small plots of land.
“The support is very important because our families need food. The food not only helps us have enough to eat, but it allows us to study. Many girls have joined the school since WFP began providing support,” said Hyat, 13 years old. “If WFP had not provided support, there is no way we would have been able to stay in school so long. We would have probably been pulled out before 5th grade and been made to work at home.”
The girls are in ninth grade. For them, this is the last year of school as there is no high school or university nearby. “I want to be a teacher and go to university, but I can’t even complete high school because there is no school nearby,” said Fyaza, 15 years old. “School is so important, and it makes me very angry and sad that I won’t be able to finish. After this year, it is all over; my hopes for the future are gone. I will have to take responsibility for the house.”