One day every year, children take over the Turkish government – symbolically at least. On the country’s National Sovereignty and Children’s Day, the adults are dismissed from their seats in parliament and youngsters are promoted to “govern” for the day. It is a fitting lesson for the Mena region, where more than 28 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to Unicef. While the junior parliamentarians in Ankara are obviously not empowered to set policy, their voices on this important day raise vital issues for social welfare and an awareness of internationally recognized children’s rights that are so often ignored, to the detriment of all.
This year, the youngsters used their podium to address subjects that define the world of kids, such as education, play, art and science, and sports. Some radical parliamentarians even tangled with the thorny issue of more options for school lunches.
But in Turkey, and the wider region, even for children it is not all fun and games. Sixth-grader Fatih Mintas, who was filling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s shoes for a day, showed a profound awareness of the tragedy to the south that no child should be subjected to. “I would work to make Syrian children feel at home and invite them to play and smile with us,” he said.
In one sentence, young Fatih reflected the plight of hundreds of thousands of his peers suffering in Syria’s interminable civil war. One gets the feeling that his policies would be an improvement upon those of the adults who are actually in charge.
Turkey’s Children’s Day, which falls on April 23, is embedded in the foundation of the modern state, dating back to 1923 when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dedicated the newly independent republic to the youth. Across the world, Children’s Day is celebrated on different dates, including the UN’s Universal Children’s Day on November 20, which was established in 1954 to promote international awareness of children’s rights.
The event is marked with celebrations including games and dress-up play, as well as activities to inform children about their rights under the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which actually predates the UN in its original form, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child codified in 1989. “Recognizing that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding,” the Convention states.
As someone who grew up in the Middle East, I certainly don’t recall anyone ever informing me or my classmates about our rights under international law. Instead, we were taught to be obedient to our parents and authorities, such as teachers and the police, and not to question orders. It is only as an adult that I found out that “happiness” is among the basic rights belonging to all children.
Returning to Turkey’s example, imagine if we actually listened to children and empowered them to contribute to the policies that affect their lives? Instead, all too often, we belittle their voices and dismiss their opinions.
There are, however, other initiatives in the region that champion children and empower them to champion themselves. In 1997, the Ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, established the Sharjah Children Parliament, which holds elections, convenes meetings and releases statements to the media about children’s concerns. One of the parliament’s latest reports dealt with road safety, a chronic problem in the UAE, and recommended that parents be required to make sure their children wear seat belts.
Such concerns reflect the very real perils affecting young people even in ordinary circumstances. In 2010, a Unicef report praised the initiative, saying the young parliamentarians had discussed topics such as children’s rights and security, “at-risk” youth and child-related media issues.
Sheikh Sultan built upon his advocacy of children’s rights in 2016 when he announced that Sharjah would host and support the headquarters and general secretariat of the Arab Children’s Parliament. Affiliated with the Arab League and established as part of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the platform empowers children to address crucial concerns and chronic problems in their respective societies. Let us hope that it is more effective than the actual adult Arab Parliament. Earlier this month, Sharjah was named a Child-Friendly City by Unicef, in recognition of its efforts in the protection and promotion of children’s rights.
Such forums play an important role in raising awareness about the complexity of the challenges that the convention addresses. At a minimum, children’s needs encompass everything from clean water and sanitation to education and health care. Particularly in countries affected by ongoing conflicts, they must be protected from forced labor, human trafficking, underage marriages and recruitment into the armed forces.
As a reporter in the Mena region, I have seen such abuses repeated time and again. In one shocking case, I met a refugee Syrian boy who pulled up his shirt and showed me a scar across his lower back. He had been kidnapped, drugged and cut open, his kidney extracted for the illegal organ market. He was only 10 years old.
Such abuses will not stand. Children must be informed of their rights, but so too must adults who wield so much power over their lives. The truth is that even in more stable societies, not just in the Mena region but worldwide, adults are often doing a miserable job protecting the welfare and rights of children in their care.
Rym Tina Ghazal is a peace ambassador, thought/youth leader, documentarian, lecturer and author. In addition, she is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years of experience. In 2003, she became one of the first women of Arab heritage to cover war zones in the Middle East.
AFP PHOTO/Zein Al RIFAI