AMMAN // Last week, when two of Saeed Erman's classmates fought over stolen pencils during break time at his Palestinian refugee school, he interfered and told them that they needed to resolve their differences peacefully.
"I told them that violence is not allowed in Islam. You are brothers. We managed to separate them from each other through dialogue," Saeed, aged 10, said. He heads a 36-seat parliament at the Joufeh Elementary School for boys that was elected by pupils in October, in what teachers, parents and supervisors described as "fair and democratic" elections. The school's parliament is a major component of a human rights-based education programme run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) that aims to provide the children of Palestinian refugees in the region with a taste of democracy.
Programme supervisors believe their curriculum is a step towards deepening the concepts of human rights and democracy at an early age in a region where they are for the most part faltering. "The project is designed to equip them with human rights values, how to resolve their disputes in a peaceful manner, learn their rights and to promote a spirit of tolerance at the grass roots level to prepare children to become better future citizens," said Khalil Radwan, the UNRWA school development specialist who oversees the human rights programme in UNRWA's schools in the region.
Ten years ago, the programme was introduced in the UNRWA-run schools in the West Bank and Gaza, and in 2002 it was expanded to include UNRWA schools in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. "To put our objectives into practice, the teachers receive training and the curricula is enriched with stories that promote human rights. In students' parliaments, children are taught how to elect their representatives in school. Parliamentarians then follow up issues that include the school's cleanliness, absentees, discipline, what the school is missing - and raise them to the administration," Mr Radwan said.
There are 174 UNRWA-run schools in Jordan, most of them holding classes in double shifts for the 125,000 children of the descendants of Palestinian refugees who flooded the country in two successive waves as a result of the Arab-Israeli wars in 1948 and 1967. The Joufeh school building is shared by four separate schools - two for girls and two for boys. Both are run from first grade to 10th, or until pupils turn 15 years old. Each has its own parliament.
The Joufeh parliament is currently debating the problem of overcrowding. "One of the problems we have now is that when the older students go to recess with the little ones, canteen and the bathrooms are crowded," Saeed said. His deputy in parliament, Hamzah Jbara, nine, ran on a platform of trying to secure separate toilets as well as a separate playground for the elementary school students. At the elementary school for girls, the 28 members of parliament are working on enforcing discipline in the classroom through the adoption of a code of ethics and by penalties.
"I do not want to make noise, and want to commit myself to wearing the school uniform, and not to be late for school, respect my friends and do my homework," Salwa Smadi, 10, said about the code she would like to see implemented. Hala, 11, signed a pledge this month that she would not fight with any of her classmates. The pledge was part of the parliament's code of conduct. "Students are working towards having a school environment free of violence," said Hanan Habash, the UNRWA human rights school supervisor in Jordan. "They came up with an alternative means to the physical punishment that was used before in order to improve students' behaviour in co-operation with their teachers," she said.
Punishments now range from verbal warnings to suspension. The human rights school's efforts run in tandem with a campaign launched by Queen Rania last month that aims to curb violence in the kingdom's schools by 90 per cent over the next three years. A 2007 study by Unicef found that 57 per cent of children in Jordan are subject to physical abuse by school teachers and administrators. The older students' parliament at Joufeh is working to raise awareness about early marriages. Although a temporary personal status law in 2001 brought the legal of age of marriage to 18, early marriage persists in Jordan because a clause permits judges to sanction a marriage for a 15-year-old girl if he decides the marriage is for her own good. "Early marriages and dropping out from school are major problems we face," Gofran Mohammad, 16, told the school's parliament.
"Girls do not approve the marriage, but parents push them - I managed to convince one of my sister's friends to break up her engagement." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org