Hundreds of children in the West Bank city of Nablus completed voting Dec. 16th in elections for a new Children's Municipality Council (CMC). The process will eventually bring to five the number of councils in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt).
The CMC’s are one of the flagship projects of UNICEF in oPt, involving hundreds of children – backed by mayors, parents, teachers, trainers and headmasters - in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Essentially shadow city councils, they allow adolescents to make practical decisions over issues affecting their lives – from the size of classrooms and the location of a pedestrian crossing to trash collection and water conservation.
In short, they formalize children’s participation in city life.
Because more than 50 percent of the population of oPt is less than 18 years old, local mayors are challenged by the need to provide facilities and services for this large constituency. This is where the CMC’s come in. They generate small-scale community projects designed to bring about positive change for children; they meet regularly with municipal leaders, organize awareness campaigns on children’s rights and issues and arrange local elections for schoolchildren.
And in an environment like oPt where curfews, closures and incursions are a fact of life for many children, CMCs help to give children a sense of empowerment.
“I get a lot of benefits from this experience. It helps boost my self confidence,” said Asil Fityani, the 15-year-old mayor of the CMC in Jericho, the first ever established in opt five years ago.
The voting this week in Nablus involved children in 22 schools in Grades 7-10. It followed information session for parents, children and teachers on election guidelines and campaigns.
The voting process will produce two candidates from each school that will serve in a new CMC. Before assuming their positions, all CMC members will have been exposed to 40 hours of training in such areas as communications skills, human rights and the CRC. “The children are very very excited as this is a new experience for them,” said Liana Taher, of the Palestinian Children’s Rights Coalition, as she watched children cast their votes in Nablus on Thursday.
Outside the classroom where incoming votes were being painstakingly counted by hand, campaign posters plastered the walls – some even sporting English and French language slogans.
Linda Jaber and Dima Al-Kilani served as focal points for the voting in one of the Nablus schools on Thursday, standing by to give the young voters guidance on making an informed choice. Both said they hope the new CMC will help bring new facilities and activities for children in Nablus – where incursions and curfews occur with an alarming frequency.
“As teenagers we need places to go after school. All we do now is just study,” said Linda. The two explained that last year alone, Nablus was paralyzed by five closures ordered by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Two years ago, Linda’s house was temporarily occupied by 40 soldiers.
Across town, 14-year-old Naderah Makerem Zouher Soufan was beaming after winning the CMC elections in her school. The eighth grader campaigned on an ambitious platform of promising more facilities for kids. “Because we live under occupation we need all kinds of facilities in sports and recreation. We need these things because often times it seems we have no hope,” she said.
To underscore her point, Naderah led a group of visitors to her school’s computer lab to point out ageing computers which are slow and have no connection to the Internet.
Back in Jericho, CMC members boast about one of their current obsessions – to convince the city to install special lanes for bicyclists. During weekends and summer cyclists overwhelm the city and make life difficult for pedestrians and drivers alike. They plan to advertise their work on a dedicated web page for the CMC on the Jericho City’s website at http://www.jericho-city.org/jcmc.html
UNICEF’s support for the establishment and growth of the CMCs in oPt is substantial. Aside from providing technical and financial assistance – the cost for the establishment of one CMC averages about $16,000 – UNICEF project officers regularly monitor the progress and provide donors with regular progress reports. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is a major backer of the CMCs.
By the end of February 2005, more than 45,000 children aged 12-16 will have participated in open elections to establish five new CMCs in oPt. Aside from Nablus, they will be held in Khan Younis, Hebron and Tubas – bringing to nine the total number of CMCs. In existing cities – Jenin, Jericho, Gaza and Rafah – the CMCs have designed and implemented six small-scale community projects benefiting more than 25,000 children.