BEIRUT: Lebanon will implement concrete strategies to protect the rights of children, Social Affairs Minister Selim Sayegh said Wednesday during a visit by a leading rights expert. Speaking during a meeting with civil-society organizations to mark a visit by former UN official and expert on child rights Paulo Pinheiro, Sayegh said promoting the rights of the child would be the “ultimate priority” of his ministry. “If we can’t make it in childhood, we are not going to make it in any other sector,” he added.
Pinheiro, a Brazilian national, was appointed by the UN in 2003 as an independent expert to produce the organization’s first major study on violence against children. He has also served as a UN special rapporteur on human rights. Since Pinheiro presented the study in 2006, Lebanon “has taken several steps” toward promoting child rights, said Dr. Elie Mekhael, general secretary of the Higher Council for Childhood at the Social Affairs Ministry, including the formation of a national committee on violence against children. A national helpline for vulnerable children is also being developed. “We are now undertaking a full review of Lebanon’s laws [to make them] more suitable and convergent with international conventions related to children,” he said.
Pinheiro said he hoped Lebanon could serve as a regional leader in child rights. “What happens in Lebanon can have an enormous, decisive role in the region,” he said, urging any hotline to be child friendly. He also said the formulation of a national strategy on child rights was “not a magical wand,” stressing the importance of implementation and follow-up.
Lebanon ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. With 193 ratifications, the convention is the most widely upheld international human-rights treaty in history. Lebanon became a party to the Convention’s Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, in 2004. It has also signed but not yet ratified the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict.
Despite signing up to the convention, Lebanon has “no clear child-protection system” in place, Sayegh admitted.
One “very important” step Lebanon could take would be banning corporal punishment, Pinheiro said. In 2008, the Education Ministry issued a circular banning the use of corporal punishment in schools, but it does not appear to have been widely implemented. Pinheiro also suggested involving young people in the formulation of child-friendly legislation: “Adolescents are great experts on their own situations.”
Poverty remains a major hindrance to child rights, with some 29 percent of Lebanese living under the poverty line of $4.20 per person per day, according to the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF. Some 8 percent live under extreme poverty, struggling to make ends meet on a paltry $2.40 per person per day.
Lebanon also has a high school-drop-out rate, with some 32 percent of 11-13 year olds leaving before completing their studies. While there are several provisions in the Lebanese Penal Code aimed at protecting children, Lebanon’s discriminatory nationality law, which only allows citizenship to be bestowed by the father, means that thousands of children are deprived of their right to state protection and belonging.
Stateless, refugee and working children are particularly at risk as they are excluded from protection, care and education services enjoyed by their Lebanese counterparts. “Children should not be discriminated against because they are stateless or refugees,” Pinheiro said. The US Labor Department’s “2008 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor – Lebanon,” released in September 2009, found that Syrian and Palestinian children living in refugee camps constituted around 85 percent of child beggars. A 2004 study by the Labor Ministry found that 47 percent of the working street children it interviewed had been forced by adults to work long hours.
Cases of Lebanese children being internally trafficked for forced labor or prostitution have also been reported.