Food Keeps Girls In School In Yemen

Ali Mohamed Ghaleb’s five daughters give him a special interest in supporting the innovative Food For Girls’ Education Programme that WFP has been operating in Yemen since 2007. The 44-year-old retired military officer says it helps him keep them in school.

SANA’A—Ali Mohamed Ghaleb heaves a 25-kilogram bag of wheat over his shoulder and says that without it, he'd have a hard time putting his five daughters through school.

Not all of them have started attending classes yet. His two youngest aren’t old enough, but 13-year-old Fatimah, who helps her father load the wheat onto the back of a motorcycle, is a Grade 6 student at the Al Jeel Al Jadid school in Tawalib village, in the hills south of Sana’a. She’s one year ahead of a younger sister in Grade 5. Ali’s eldest daughter has already graduated.

As long as Ali’s children go to school, he’s eligible to receive for each an annual ration from WFP of 150 kg of wheat and eight kg of fortified vegetable oil. It is normally delivered, as happened at the school in Tawalib, in three separate distributions spaced over the course of the school year.

“For me, it’s a bonus that helps me make sure all my girls get an education,” says Ali, who has been running his family’s farm since leaving the army. “But for many others in this country less fortunate than me, it’s a necessity. Without it, their daughters would probably not be in school at all.”

Girl in school

Ali does not exaggerate. More than 60 percent of primary school-aged children in Yemen who are not in school are girls. While primary school enrolment rates for boys are 85 percent, they are 65 percent girls. The result is a significant gender gap, reflected in illiteracy rates. Overall, the rate of illiteracy in the country is 41 percent, but it is 60 percent for adult females, compared to 21 percent for adult males.

Young yemeni girls carrying WFP sacks of foodTo address the issue, WFP has been deploying food assistance as a tool to encourage families to send their daughters to school and keep them there. School girls like Ali’s daughters are provided with take-home rations, sufficient to provided nutritional support for a family of seven. The rations are designed to act as incentive for poor families to give their daughters the chance of an education.

The food rations not only help to bridge the gender gap but, indirectly, also address other key challenges—illiteracy, low nutrition and health education, child marriage, maternal/child mortality and high population growth.

“The programme works,” maintains Abdul Wasir Mohamed Al Nuser, principal of the Omar Bin Al Khatab school in a village neighbouring Tawalib. “I would guess that attendance rates for the girls at my school would fall by 90 percent if these rations were terminated.”

WFP evaluations tend to support that view.  One study found that girls’ enrolment and attendance rates in WFP-supported schools grew by more than 60 percent. In some districts, girls’ enrolment even exceeded that of boys.

Funding shortfall

Despite the benefits, the programme has run into financial problems in recent years. In 2010, funding shortfalls resulted in most of the 86,000 girls targeted receiving one reduced ration instead of the three initially planned. In 2011, WFP was forced to cut almost in half the number of beneficiaries, dropping from 115,000 to 59,000 girls. The numbers fell again in 2012 to 53,000—371,000 beneficiaries in all when families were counted.

Given funding forecasts, WFP is aiming to reach 35,000 school girls during the 2013-2014 school year, 245,000 people overall.

For Ali, that is not good news. “I hope they’re not going to kill this project,” he says. “I have two daughters in school, two more to go. I can use all the help I can get.