Imagine all children in Wales waking up tomorrow to find their schools reduced to a heap of rubble. Or finding that there are no teachers at school because they can’t even afford to feed their families having worked without a salary for over a year.
This is the reality for the children in Yemen, where almost half a million children have been forced to drop out of school since the rise of conflict in 2015.
With so many global crises facing us every time we switch on the news, such a statement no longer seems as shocking as it once might.
This is equivalent to every schoolchild in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Cheshire, Leeds, Cornwall and Newcastle combined being stripped of their future prospects overnight. Perhaps their school is now a makeshift shelter for families without a home. Or perhaps their parents have decided sending them to school is too risky when airstrikes on schools are becoming commonplace.
For ten-year-old Mohammed in Yemen, school is no longer a place of safety and hope. His family had to tell him what happened the day his school was bombed. As well as losing his school and many classmates in the attack, he also lost his memory.
It could be argued that there are more immediate and urgent issues to focus on as we approach three years of conflict; almost two million children under five are on the brink of famine; around 16 million people need safe drinking water as public infrastructure fails; and the number of people in need of healthcare has more than tripled since 2015.
However, children’s education is always one of the first things lost during conflict, and often the last to be restored. Whilst the life-saving needs of shelter, food, healthcare and safe water are crucial, the schools and teachers that sustain an entire future generation must also be a priority.
Mohammed and his family fled his hometown after the attack on his school. Now living in another part of Yemen, he is trying to resume his studies but with the damage to his memory, he has had to drop down from sixth grade to first grade. His school is barely functioning at all.
Unicef is working tirelessly trying to make schools safe and functioning spaces where children can continue to learn. We continue to train teachers, provide equipment to schools where we can, and keep enrolling children into the system.
At the moment, teachers aren’t being paid and can’t even afford to feed their families. Unicef is speaking out on their behalf to address this issue, which has affected more than 12,000 schools in Yemen. We are also demanding the protection of schools as safe spaces under international humanitarian law.
This will never be enough. There are no humanitarian solutions to political problems and whilst Unicef’s response is crucial, it isn’t the answer. Yemen now faces the world’s largest man-made food security crisis and a stable peace process is the only hope for genuine restoration of the infrastructures that will offer children a stable future.
In the meantime we continue to prioritise not only the life-saving needs of children and families in Yemen, but also the issues that will stretch far beyond this generation – the consequences of which we do not yet know.
Mike Penrose is Unicef UK’s Executive Director. You can donate to Unicef UK’s Yemen appeal here