BEIRUT: Speaker Nabih Berri called on the country’s young people to take the lead in abolishing sectarianism in Lebanon and promoting the role of women in public affairs, in a special Parliament session he chaired Sunday on the occasion of Universal Children’s Day.
The speaker urged youth to work to realize the demands of Arab protesters who have ousted their autocratic rulers. “The people want to abolish sectarianism ... want a modern electoral law ... want to lower the voting age and increase the participation of youth,” he said, echoing their chants.
He also encouraged them to enhance the role of women in the political, economic, social and cultural fields.
Universal Children’s Day, celebrated annually on Nov. 20, was first proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1954 to encourage states to promote mutual exchange and understanding among children.
Dressed in white, 128 students took turns posing questions on health, social, educational and cultural affairs during the session, which was organized by the Social Affairs Ministry’s Higher Council for Children.
Berri lamented that democracy “as a way of life” is missing from school curriculum in Lebanon, and expressed his hope that Education Minister Hasan Diab would take up the issue.
Berri also called on Parliament’s Women and Children’s Affairs Committee, Parliament officials in charge of parliamentary development and the United Nations Development Program to establish a project for middle-school students to increase their knowledge of parliament and its role.
“I demand the creation of a Web page for children so that they can always pose their questions [about Parliament] and not only on ... [certain] occasions,” he said.
In attendance were Prime Minister Najib Mikati, first lady Wafaa Sleiman, the speaker’s wife Randa, who heads the Lebanese Welfare Association for the Handicapped, Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, Kesrouan MP Gilbert Zwein, who chairs Parliament’s Women and Children’s Affairs committee, and other officials.
Mikati told children that he dreamt of being a lawmaker and a prime minister when he was a child.
“Children, I call on you to dream and to have ambitions so that you reach your full potential.
“But for a dream to be fulfilled, it needs several elements, mainly values ... I call on you to adhere to ... honesty and religious and humanitarian values,” the prime minister added.
Mikati highlighted the importance of education for success.
“Don’t be afraid of taking the hard road because your choices are clear,” he said.
He also urged children to draw lessons from the mistakes of current officials and not to give up.
“Lebanon is rich in diversity and coexistence, which we have to preserve, we have to all cooperate to turn the dream into efforts and achievement,” he added.
Hanadi, a disabled child, asked the lawmakers and ministers present when disabled students would be allowed to join their able-bodied peers at school.
“When a state is built in Lebanon,” Berri answered. For his part, Abu Faour expressed his hope that a decree stipulating that all schools be accessible for disabled students would be issued on Dec. 3, which is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
Salah Hsaiban, who has cancer, brought up the issue of free health care for all Lebanese.
“Do you know that my treatment costs $40,000 per year, and that if it wasn’t for the free treatment at the Children’s Cancer Center ... my parents would have been forced to deprive my siblings of basic necessities to afford my treatment?”
Berri replied by saying that the demand was “important” and needed to be fulfilled.
At the end of the session, Abu Faour, Mikati, Sleiman and Zwein handed Berri a draft law to strengthen punishment for child abuse and a second to protect the rights of homeless children as well as juveniles who commit crimes.