The Houthis and the Hijacking of Yemen’s Education Sector
by Romy Haber
Schools and universities in Yemen have been the target of attacks, shelling, airstrikes, and occupation by the various fractions in Yemen’s civil conflict. The country’s education system has been devastated, hundreds of schools and institutions have been destroyed and many fell under the control of the Iran-backed Houthis, a militia that captured the nation’s capital, Sana’a, and the majority of the northern governorates. The Houthis keep on expanding their power by exploiting the breakdown of state institutions. Hijacking the education sector is part of their takeover of Yemen.
The Houthis’ attacks on schools and universities have not been limited to bullets and bombs, they seek control over these institutions. Ali Al-Sakani, journalist and graduate teaching assistant in Yemen, explained why the Houthis are so interested in dominating the education sector noting that:
‘Through this sector, Houthis can have easy access to a large number of Yemenis to mobilise and recruit. Houthis know that their beliefs and ideology are not accepted by the wide range of Yemeni society, especially young people, therefore they target the education sector to change the identity and national principles in the curriculums and replace them with their sectarian ideology and goals, which will make the next generations easier to control and influence.’
Hijacking Education: Tools and Approaches
To achieve their goals, the Houthis fired and persecuted many experienced professors and university administrators and replaced them with often unqualified supporters. For instance, Yahia Badreddin Al-Houthi, brother of the Houthis’ leader, Abdul Malek Al-Houthi, was appointed as Minister of Education in the group-controlled areas, while the Director of the University of Science and Technology in Sana’a, Dr Hameed Aklan, was kidnapped, imprisoned and replaced by a Houthi-loyalist, Dr Adel Al-Mutawakkil, in early 2020.
The Houthis have created a culture of fear. Detaining and torturing students for allegedly forming an opposition alliance or criticising the Houthis is also common. They have recruited students and staff to monitor and report on other students and staff, who express opposition to the Houthis or Iran. In January 2020, armed men kidnapped students at the Ibb University, because they criticized the Houthis on a WhatsApp group. The same scenario was repeated a few months later when, in April, around 20 students from Dhamar University were abducted.
To transform the national and cultural identity, the Houthis not only replaced staff, they also changed the names of the schools. For example, The Babel School is now referred to as “September 21 School,” the date when Sana’a was captured by the Houthis in 2014. They have imposed courses conforming to the Houthi leader’s extremist, sectarian, political outlook and moulded the curriculum around their ideology. This aims to create ideal conditions for indoctrination and recruitment among the youth. Many education facilities in the Houthis-controlled areas have been used to recruit and train child soldiers, while others serve as prisons. The Houthis have also used some schools and universities for military purposes, notably storing weapons, effectively turning them into targets of the Coalition’s air strikes, which in turn cause suffering and outrage, serving Houthi propaganda.
Recently, the Houthis built walls inside classrooms to separate male students from female students. Nadwa Dawsari, Yemeni conflict and policy analyst, tweeted: ‘As a graduate of Sana’a University myself, I never thought I would see this happening in Yemen. And Houthis war on women have just started.’
What the Houthis are doing to schools and universities in Yemen will have acute consequences for the country’s education sector.
‘Many parents have prevented their children from completing their studies as a result of the change of curriculum or their inability to pay the fees Houthis have imposed on public schools that [once] provided free education. And the environment in universities is no longer suitable for education after the Houthis imposed strict restrictions, fired qualified professors and closed several departments,’ Al Sakani told us.
The Houthis’ takeover also greatly impacted women’s right to education. Many had to drop out because of threats and the strict, sexist, restrictions the Houthis are imposing. Moreover, many girls’ schools were reportedly privatised and turned into boys-only schools, like the Balqis school in Sana’a, one of the oldest public schools for girls in Yemen.
‘This year, my sister Rehab refused to finish her high school diploma in Omran because of changes to the curriculum and the restrictions imposed by the Houthis, so she is now studying in Marb, which is controlled by the legitimate government and she is studying the national curriculum,’ Al Sakani added.
However, not every girl or student can leave the Houthi-controlled areas to have access to better education. Many are left with only two options: drop out or submit. The lack of proper schooling and poor education will have extremely negative effects on the population and country. Education, while it may not be an immediate concern during the conflict, is highly crucial for post-conflict peace sustainability.
‘The impact will be catastrophic; it will create generations with sectarian and racist ideas, with an extremist religious identity instead of a national identity, a low level of scientific education, and an increase in illiteracy…’ Al Sakani explained.
In Search of a Solution
A solution is needed to save the education sector in Yemen and stop the Houthis from transforming schools into arenas for recruiting and mobilising minors. According to Al Sakani,
‘Education needs to be kept out of the conflict, and UNICEF can play an important role by monitoring the educational process, printing and distributing the national textbooks, and paying teachers’ salaries.’
However, the Houthis complicate and obstruct UNICEF’s work and provisions of international humanitarian aid. According to Asharq Al-Awsat, the Houthis have been trying to seize cash incentives offered by UNICEF, co-funded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to 130,000 teachers in regions under Houthi control.
Therefore, only a solution to the conflict can save the education sector and all the crises Yemen is facing. Humanitarian aid is needed but can only help in the short-term. International actors need to halt the pursuit of narrow interests and stop using Yemen as a battleground—regional peace is at stake as are countless millions of Yemeni lives. The international community needs to put more pressure on them and mediate a solution. But most importantly, no solution should force Yemenis to make peace with radical groups because it will translate into Yemenis being ruled by radicals. Many efforts need to be local, bottom-up, and decentralised so that Yemenis have a stake in their own future.
09 February 2021
Heather Murdock, “Hundreds of Schools in Yemen Attacked by Warring Parties,” Voice of America, 10 Sep-tember 2020 available at: https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/hundreds-schools-yemen-attacked-warring-parties.
Author’s interview with Ali Al-Sakani.
Nora Bendary, “Houthis plant intelligence cells to replace student unions at Yemen universities,” Center for Middle Eastern Studies, December 3, 2019, available at: https://www.theportal-center.com/2019/12/houthis-plant-intelligence-cells-to-replace-student-unions-at-yemen-universities/.
Burton Bollag, “Attacks on Yemeni Higher Education Highlighted in ‘Free to Think’ Report,” Al-Fanar Me-dia, 20 November 2020, available at: https://www.al-fanarmedia.org/2020/11/attacks-yemeni-higher-education-free-to-think-report/
Scholars at Risk, “2020-04-28 Dhamar University,” Scholars at Risk, n.d., available at: https://www.scholarsatrisk.org/report/2020-04-28-dhamar-university/.
“Militias Change Names of Yemeni Schools to Glorify Houthi Ideology,” Asharq Al-Awsat, 6 April 2020, available at: https://english.aawsat.com//home/article/2219051/militias-change-names-yemeni-schools-glorify-houthi-ideology.
United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on Children and armed conflict, S/2019/509,” 26 July 2019, pp. 29-30, available at: https://www.un.org/sg/sites/www.un.org.sg/files/atoms/files/26-07-2019_SG_CAAC_report_advance_copy_0.pdf.
United Nations Security Council, “Parties to Conflict in Yemen Have Accepted Plan for Redeployment of Forces from Hodeidah Port, Special Envoy Tells Security Council,” Security Council, 8512th Meeting, SC/13780, 15 April 2019, available at: https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/sc13780.doc.htm.
Mohammed Ghobari, Twitter post, 19 September 2020, 15:42, available at: https://twitter.com/MohammedGhobari/status/1307314083255984128; Asharq Al-Awsat, “Houthis Privatize Public Schools for Financial Gain,” Asharq Al-Awsat, 22 September 2020, available at: https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/2522111/houthis-privatize-public-schools-financial-gain.
Ali Rabih, “Houthis Seek to Confiscate UNICEF Allowances for Teachers,” Asharq Al-Awsat, 3 April 2020, available at: https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/2214466/houthis-seek-confiscate-unicef-allowances-teachers.