At the age of thirteen, Mona was unable to read and write. In Al-Habeel, a village in Bagel, one of the largest cities in the Al-Hadida governorate, educating girls is not widely accepted. Traditionally, families do not recognize education as a necessity for girls, who often get married at a very young age.
But an educational radio program was enough for Mona to start her educational journey.
“I was thirteen years old and I couldn’t read nor write,” she said. “My life was boring and monotonous. In the morning, I worked as a cattle herder and then I went back to work at home.”
Illiteracy prevails in Bagel, and around 70 percent of those who are illiterate are female. Many villages in the region lack basic services, such as electricity, water, healthcare, education. The area’s residents move from village to village by donkey or motorbike. They depend mostly on the services available in the more developed villages. Most of the villagers work as cattle herders and potters and connect to the outside world by radio.
In addition to educational programs broadcast on the local radio channel of Al-Hadida governorate, Mona also listened to special programs focusing on human development. “When I first listened to educational material,” she said, “I felt an urge to learn quickly. For a whole month, I was trying to copy everything I could see but my handwriting was not good and my hands were not used to writing.”
Mona’s eagerness to learn impressed her father, who finally agreed to send her to the village center to memorize the Quran with her brothers. Mona said “I was the only girl in the center, and as a result the villagers were expressing their annoyance with my family because I was the only girl studying among boys.”
Mona’s father did not give in to their criticism. In her house, which lacks electricity and water, Mona’s father was encouraging and helping her revise her lessons under lantern light. “My father’s encouragement increased my ambitions,” she said, “and so I asked my Quran teacher whether he would agree to teach more girls. I was very happy when he agreed.”
The next morning, Mona took a piece of paper and a pen and went with her friend to ask other girls at farms, water wells, and houses whether or not they would want to learn.
After two weeks, the two girls went back to the Quran center with a list of 165 names of girls who also wanted to enroll at the Quran memorizing center.
Khaled, the Quran teacher, said “When Mona came to me with the list of names, I went the next day to the governmental literacy center in Bagel and requested to officially work under their supervision and announce our village center as the official educational center for Al-Habeel village.” The girls would do more than just memorize the Quran, but would teach writing and reading.
Abi Abdullah Al-Ansary Educational Center was opened in 2006, not only as a literacy center, but also as an elementary education center for villagers’ children. In the morning, 130 children at different levels of elementary education take their lessons. In the evenings, 165 women take literacy lessons.
Today, Mona is a teacher of Islamic culture in the literacy program, along with three teachers hired this year by UNICEF in the village. (Much education in Yemen, of course, has ground to a halt due to the Saudi airstrikes. See related story: Yemen’s Students Idled by Saudi Air Attacks) “After we started teaching,” she said, “I was supervising girls’ attendance. It felt as if a light was sparking in our minds.”
Still, there is much more to do. “One hand does not clap, if we do not have secondary schools, all of these efforts will be lost,” said Salam Adam, a teacher at the literacy program. “Girls students go back home after graduating from here. They need advanced schools to join and complete their education.”
The literacy center in Bagel aims at providing educational opportunities through enrolling school drop-outs at educational and training institutions. In 2014, the literacy centers in Bagel amounted to 40 centers with 66 classes and 3200 students.
During the past ten years, 110 literacy, primary and secondary schools were established in different parts of Yemen. However, literacy centers face great challenges especially in remote villages, where they do not have permanent headquarters and people have great difficulty getting to them.
In spite of such difficulties, students enrolled in literacy centers amount to more than 115 students. But with Yemen’s population at about 25 million and illiteracy rates reaching 62 percent among females, according to The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, the number of students enrolled in literacy centers is still relatively few.
Today, after ten years, Mona is still a role model for other women. Her four younger sisters are enrolled in the educational center. Mona’s dreams are not complete. Although she is a long ways from the cities where universities are, she would like to go beyond her basic education.
“One day, I will enroll, along with my friends, in university education,” she said. “I have to.”