Children’s Municipality Councils: Schools of Democracy and Decision Making
By Sami Abu Salem
GAZA, 21 November 2004 - "Let Us Keep Our Garden Clean", "Lets Play and Have Fun", "Share Us to Draw Smile on the Children's Faces", "Our Slogan Is Team Work.” These are some of the slogans written on colored posters adorning the walls of the UNICEF-supported Children’s Municipality Council (CMC) of Gaza.
On a summer day recently, the 32-member CMC convened at its usual location in the Municipality of Gaza building debating such issues as athletic activities and recycling solid waste. Their childhood demeanors seem to fade away as their discussions focused on strategic plans for the children of Gaza.
The voice of the members filled the hall, where two facilitators were supervising the two groups. The chairman of the CMC, Ehab Al-Shawwa, 17, was sitting with the group discussing athletic activities. He welcomed and briefed visitors about the formation, activities, purposes and ambitions of the CMC of Gaza.
“The CMC is one of the UNICEF projects. It tries to help and encourage us to develop our skills and to provide us with new abilities," said Al-Shawwa , whose own story about assuming the leadership of the CMC is nothing short of amazing.
The CMC was democratically elected by 9000 children, aged 12-15, in Gaza City – one of the most densely-populated and most isolated cities on the planet. They flocked to ballot boxes to vote for 32 members among 222 candidates in 14 electoral constitutions.
Al-Shawwa said that the CMC consists of children selected from United Nations Refugee and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) and Governmental schools as well as the physically handicapped association. It holds its own separate sessions, puts forward plans related to the interests of children, and submits project drafts to the Municipal Council of Gaza. "All of such activities are carried out under the supervision and support of UNICEF," he said.
“The municipality has accepted several projects we proposed such as ‘Games for All’ and ‘Culture for All.’ The two projects were accepted, they were carried out by the municipality and other official bodies, and financially supported by UNICEF", Al-Shawwa said.
Cooperation is maintained with other CMCs in oPt. "Last week we attended a week-long ‘experience exchange’ with the CMC of Rafah. But we cannot meet our colleagues in the West Bank because of restrictions. So to overcome the problem, we used the Gaza UNICEF office to contact them via the web cam and internet messenger. “It is enjoyable and fruitful, we use technological communication," Al-Shawwa said.
In the shadow of a tree, in the Garden of the Municipality Building, Al-Shawwa patiently outlines his unique experiences at the CMC and how it’s impacted upon his life.
Al-Shawa’s ascendance to the head of the CMC marks a remarkable journey. Because of his difficult economic condition, he was forced to leave school at the age of nine to work at biscuit and marble factories. After five years of work, he was able to return to school but it didn’t take long before personal, social and financial reasons forced him to consider leaving school a second time. But the CMC experience convinced him to stay in the classroom.
"I was thinking of leaving the school again, but when I succeeded in elections, I decided to continue. In fact, I am doing my best to be better and better in school because I do not want to disappoint the pupils. How can they vote fore me while am lazy? It is unbelievable, I should be the best because I am the elected leader of the CMC," he said.
"It was a very important course. We attended lectures and workshops on the duties of the CMC. We were trained how to help children, how to make their voices heard by decision makers, methods of democratic dialogue and how to convince others with our point of view," he said.
After the course the members carried out intensive meetings in all Gaza neighbourhoods with children and parents in order to map out the essential needs of children. Hence, "Playing for All" and "Culture for All" were the two projects chosen and subsequently supported by UNICEF and implemented by CMC in cooperation with the Municipality of Gaza.
“The CMC has provided me with self-confidence, it has changed my personality, even my way of thinking and concerns. I began thinking of the needs of children and how to solve their problems," Al-Shawwa said.
Clearly, the CMC experience has positively affected Al-Shawwa to change his social behaviors. "Even at home, there is a big change, I became braver to talk and discuss issues with parents in a different way. In brief, dealing with parents is easier and better than before," he said.
He expressed his hope that the CMC project would continue forever. "I hope all the children of Gaza will have the opportunity to exercise this experience, really it is so fruitful. I hope the UNICEF and the municipality of Gaza do not to stop this project and form new CMCs in even more cities.
UNICEF supports four CMCs in oPt (Jenin, Jericho, Gaza and Rafah) and is working to launch several more. The price tag for the establishment of each CMC is about US$20,000 – which includes conducting elections in schools for approximately 10,000 students (including awareness campaigns on open democratic elections), training of CMC participants and maintaining the CMC. Each CMC then does it's own assessment of needs for children in each respective city, plans projects, writes proposals and applies to UNICEF for a grant of approx. US$ 6000 to implement two community projects.