Child Parliament: Dream or reality? [Archives:2006/950/Reportage]
For the first time in Yemen's history and amid government fears, a Child Parliament was announced in 2000. “At first, official media refused to announce the Child Parliament for fear of comparing it with Parliament,” Democracy School head Jamal Al-Shami said, “The idea of Child Parliament was unacceptable. The government, represented by the Human Rights Ministry, tried to take the project from us at that time.”
Despite all difficulties, Child Parliament members were elected; however, this first experience was conducted only in the Capital Secretariat. Thirty-three students were elected from a handful of schools, among them eight females. Al-Shami explained that Al-Noshata Foundation first adopted the idea of forming a Child Parliament in 2000.
“We faced difficulties because we received no constant government funding. The government itself interfered in Child Parliament, as the Human Rights Ministry sought to take the great project. Al-Noshata Foundation could not continue this way and ended in 2002,” Al-Shami added. But then the idea was welcomed greatly, especially after President Ali Abdullah Saleh met with Child Parliament members.
The Democracy School was established a few months later, roughly in April of that same year, and used as Child Parliament's General Secretariat since then. No new Child Parliament elections were held in 2002; however, 2004 witnessed widespread elections, with some 20,000 students participating nationwide. Thirty-six students were elected, including 10 females.
Child Parliament's 2006 elections were conducted nationwide, with approximately 30,000 students participating. Thirty-nine members were elected, including 13 females. Nada'a Al-Sherai was elected president and Hamoud Ja'fer vice president.
2004 Child Parliament
Nabil Afif Al-Yafei was elected 2004 Child Parliament president and Marwa Jamal vice president. During their sessions, members conducted a number of activities, most notably regarding child trafficking. They also questioned several ministers and the U.S. Embassy.
During its third session, Child Parliament members questioned the education minister regarding making education free of charge. They asked about the ministry's role in fulfilling international conventions of compulsory and free education. They also questioned Deputy Human Rights Minister Ali Tayseer on the same topic and the ministry's role in following up the compulsory education law.
After concluding its third session, Child Parliament members organized a student march in an effort to submit third session recommendations. Beginning from Parliament's premises, they marched to the Education Ministry where they met Minister Dr. Abdulsalam Al-Jawfi, to whom they submitted their recommendations. Below are some of those recommendations:
1- To enact the free and compulsory education laws
2- To impose penalties on those parents depriving their children of education
3- To include a Child Rights and Democratic Education subject in the curriculum
4- To add special passages for physically handicapped students in schools
5- To forbid the U.S. from interfering in molding the education curriculum
Its fourth session stressed child trafficking. During this session, Child Parliament members questioned the U.S. Embassy regarding its not signing the Child Rights Treaty. Political attache Faris Asaad and information attache Mr. Tim replied to their questions.
In their fifth session, they questioned Information Minister Hussein Al-Awadi about the ministry's role in bringing out child rights. They also questioned media program and news directors.
Child Parliament is not known to all Yemeni children, as very few know about their Parliament. Al-Shami attributes this problem to media's less active role. “Another reason is that there are a lot of schools. Elections are held in only a very few schools. For example, only four Capital Secretariat schools were chosen.”
In this regard, Jamal explained, “The media was ignorant during 2004 and 2005, except for announcing Child Parliament's first session. Thus, children have no idea and know nothing about their Parliament in order to demand their rights.”
When asked about Child Parliament, seventh grade student Abdulrahman Mohammed replied, “What are you talking about? What is this Child Parliament? I can elect it? What is election? What do you mean by child rights? Do we have rights? What are they then? I have never heard of Child Parliament. Do you mean politics? I know nothing of the sort.”
Eighth-grader Shadi Al-Nuzeili, 14, said, “I didn't participate in electing Child Parliament members, as our school was not selected to participate. I learned about Child Parliament when I heard a radio program about it. Students are elected to maintain children's rights. When we face any problem, we just complain to school administration. That's all I know of Child Parliament.”
Eighth-grader Mohammed Abbas Al-Moshki, 17, said, “This is the first time I've heard of this so-called Child Parliament and I don't even know what Parliament is. I think Child Parliament's main objective is to defend our rights. My teachers always hit me because I don't do my homework or I make noise. I didn't know that there's a Child Parliament to defend our rights.”
Eighth-grader Al-Zubair Al-Badani, 13, said, “I once nominated myself for Child Parliament in 2004, but immediately withdrew because I knew nothing of Child Parliament. I was given a form to fill out, but then didn't nominate myself. Of course, I participated in the elections, but frankly speaking, I don't know why I did. I don't even know what children do in Child Parliament. I know none of my friends who went there to complain or do anything.”
Child Parliament mainly faces problems regarding funding. Jamal noted that such funding difficulties were evident in 2004 and 2005. “Child Parliament is a community-related organization and a new experience for Yemeni society, whereby children become accustomed to democracy, opinion and counter-opinion and asking for their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Thus, government should finance it,” she added.
Al-Shami also clarified that Child Parliament's main obstacle is funding. “The government doesn't provide us with funding. Sometimes, organizations receive funding through personal relations with some organizations and embassies. We wonder why other organizations are funded without reason.”
Not all students or schools participate in electing Child Parliament members, as only eighth and ninth grade students are allowed to participate. The Education Ministry appoints those schools that will participate in elections, while the government makes election requirements available. Voting occurs in schools under Democracy School supervision. Once elected, Child Parliament members hold sessions every three months on Parliament premises.
According to Al-Shami, some headmasters and parents display fanaticism during elections, with the Democracy School receiving contested cases. However, no political party interests were found. “I participated in 2004 elections and witnessed no party interests,” Al-Badani recalled.
Comparing Yemen's Child Parliament with those in other Arab states, Al-Shami said Yemen's Child Parliament is the best, as it is run by a non-governmental organization.