x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Emirati children may soon be heading for elections

The UAE federal government is drafting a law to develop a 46-member body made up of Emirati students throughout the UAE, in hopes of preparing children for a future in politics.

ABU DHABI // Children would be able to elect their peers to a national youth parliament under a law being drafted by the federal government.

The idea for the 46-member body was developed by the Ministry of Social Affairs, said Dr Mona Al Bahar, a Federal National Council (FNC) member from Dubai.

The goal is to educate Emirati children about elections, campaigns and political participation so that when they are old enough to vote they will be ready, said Dr Al Bahar, head of the committee drafting the law. "It is to prepare the kids for the future," she said.

The parliament will also empower children to raise issues that concern them, said a committee member, Lt Col Faisal Al Shamari, the head of the Ministry of Interior's child protection centre.

"They are part of the structure of our society and, statistically, they are our greatest and largest part," said Lt Col Al Shamari. "We have one of the highest rates of youth compared to other societies, and this is really great to give them an opportunity to listen to their voices."

Rashed Al Shuraiqi, FNC member for Ras Al Khaimah, said the country's adult parliamentarians "highly support" the idea of a child parliament.

"We believe that this will create a type of brainstorming among schoolchildren to talk about democracy, to see about the FNC, to know about the rules and procedures," he said.

A local child parliament was established in Sharjah in 1997. A Unicef report in 2010 praised the initiative, saying that the young politicians had discussed topics such as child rights, child protection, "at-risk children" and children and the media.

"The Sharjah child parliament is considered a successful project," Dr Al Bahar said. "And we thought ... why not have a child parliament on the federal level, where all the young Emiratis can participate and learn from this experience."

When the committee finishes revising the draft law, it will submit the draft to the Minister of Social Affairs, who will in turn submit it to the federal Cabinet for approval.

As the draft stands now, pupils will vote for fellow pupils to elect them to the parliament, Dr Al Bahar said. The children who win school-wide elections will continue to elections in each educational zone, then finally to an emirate-wide election.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai will send eight children each to the parliament, while the less populous emirates will send six each, the doctor added.

Any Emirati student will be eligible for election, including young children, she said.

After the children are elected, they will meet to discuss political issues.

"It will be the same as the existing parliament," Dr Al Bahar said. "There will be committees: a health committee, a law committee and also education and media committees. There will also be a committee for the environment."

In February, the FNC and the Ministry of Education announced a similar plan for a pupil parliament, with successful candidates chosen from different schools who would sit in on FNC meetings. The initiative aimed to increase understanding of the FNC and encourage electoral participation. Only 28 per cent of nearly 130,000 eligible voters turned out for last year's FNC elections.

The Ministry of Social Affairs plan is separate. Dr Al Bahar said the FNC-Ministry of Education initiative focuses more on workshops and training. However, she said she expected the two ministries would work together in implementing the child parliament.

While there are child parliaments elsewhere in the region, the UAE's will be enshrined in law, Lt Col Al Shamari said.

"Other countries are not really having it as a law or by a decree," he said. "But with the UAE child parliament, we will have fully structured roles and responsibilities, identifying their privileges ... and at the same time it will identify their obligation."

vnereim@thenational.ae