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Environment

Yemen's school kids get first chance at the ballot box

While the president fights for his political life and adults voice their discontent with his three-decade long reign, it is the school children of Yemen who experience the country's only free and fair elections.

A girl holding up her ink-covered thumb after voting

Young people in Yemen don't need instructions in democracy

In schools across Yemen, students have been preparing to elect representatives to sit in what is known as the Children's Parliament. In the run-down Abdul Rahman state school in the middle of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, the 60 boisterous students needed some time to settle down and get to the business of democracy.

Headmaster Abdullah al-Mukhayet explained the principles of democratic elections.

"It's your choice alone," he said told classroom of early teenage boys, packed five to each ragged desk. "You write down the candidate's name on the ballot paper and put it in the box without anyone looking at it."

Mohammed address his classmates from the front of their classroom

So far only students have the freedom to choose their own leaders

Neither the students nor their parents have had much practice at free elections in a country that has been ruled by one man, virtually unchallenged, since it became a republic in 1978. Still, the children appeared to know almost intuitively what democracy was all about.

"It is the freedom to say what we want," said one student, standing up to address his classmates. "It's the freedom to elect who ever you want," said another.

Pressing needs

When it comes time to explain their platforms, a visibly nervous Mohammed el-Surmi, 12, needed to be pushed into the classroom. With only a few days to prepare his election campaign and no experience in public speaking he delivered his campaign pledges in a faltering voice: "One: To work on enforcing all children's rights with no exceptions. Two: To work on protecting the children against all violations."

Even though el-Surmi's hurriedly prepared list stops for an excruciation minute of silence after point number five, the catalog of difficulties facing children in Yemen is much longer.

With an economy close to collapse, suffering nearly 40 percent unemployment, in a nation risking becoming a failed state, children, who make up half the population, face a range of hardships from child labor and trafficking to early marriage and finding a job and enough to eat.

A boy stands in a crowded classroom and gestures while asking a question

Students had plenty of issues they wanted addressed

"We need a new blackboard, a playground, a curriculum," the students shouted when asked what they hope their representative will achieve. Their classroom may be shabby and their families poor, but these young Yemenis had some sharp insights into what's gone wrong in their country. "We need better educated teachers."

Organized by local NGO Democracy School, the Children's Parliament holds its opening session inside the real parliament in Sanaa and is a lobby group made up of elected children from all over Yemen. Its role is to pressure the adult politicians into improving the lives of all children in the country.

"The idea behind this is to nurture democracy and for children to raise their voices demanding their rights," said Jamal al-Shami, director of Democracy School. "Democracy came to Yemen as a political decision, but it didn't come about in practice. We found children can make a change, whether political or social change, or the awareness of children's and women's rights."

Speaking out

Across town in the privately run Modern School students are also presenting their election campaigns to their classmates.

Mohammed Sareea explained that he would work to raise the standard of teaching and organize school trips for the older students. However, in a country racked with problems, students took the rare opportunity to vent their frustrations with their corrupt, single party government.

"We see a lot of people on TV saying, 'We will do this, we will do that,' but then they get into parliament, they take the money for it and then just leave," said one of Sareea's classmates.

The elected youth sitting in parliament

Young people hope to influence older politicians

"We don't care about field trips for the school, what's more important? There are kids out there who are living under rocks and plastic. They are not getting educated and the next thing is they're hanging out on the streets." One clearly frustrated the voter exclaimed. "What the hell? Field trips? Who cares as long as people are dying."

As an exercise in allowing the future generation of Yemenis to experience uncorrupted democracy the Children's Parliament is working, according to al-Shami. And as an opportunity to question their leaders it is very successful. But if it is to teach students to think independently, the lessons don't seem to be necessary.

"We know what democracy is, but I don't think any democracy is happening here in Yemen," said one of the students after a candidate's presentation. "People are not allowed to say what they think or what they want."

As tens of thousands of Yemenis take to the streets on an almost daily basis, it seems the students are no longer alone.

Authors: Annasofie Flamand and Hugh Macleod, in Sanaa

Editor: Sean Sinico

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