It was human rights education with a difference in Irbid city in northern Jordan in late May.
More than 70 students from 42 UNRWA schools in the Irbid area staged a performance-based ‘conference’ on human rights in front of an audience of 250 invited guests, including the Governor of Irbid, former parliamentarians and dignitaries from government and other education sectors in Jordan’s second-largest city.
The students have now taken recommendations to education authorities that center around student participation and decision-making, support for disadvantaged students, and the elimination of corporal punishment.
“The conference was a breakthrough event in a number of ways,” UNRWA Irbid Area Chief Nidal Ahmad said.
“First and foremost, it was totally the students’ own idea to bring human rights issues to light, and to do it in an exciting, performance-based way, rather than just a talk-fest.
“And they tackled sensitive issues with courage – issues like domestic violence, sexual discrimination and corporal punishment in schools, as well as the broader issues of rights to human dignity and freedom, and tolerance and conflict resolution.”
Another unique feature was the make-up of the student group performing in public. Boys and girls talked, debated, sang and acted together. Some girls wore the hijab and some did not. Aged from 7 to 15, the students came together from both elementary and preparatory schools.
The conference was the brainchild of the UNRWA School Parliament Committee for the Irbid Area. Student parliaments in each of UNRWA’s 42 schools elect two members to sit on this peak body, which meets twice a year.
This year, a force behind the event was Sara Anati, a 14-year-old student whose precocious talents saw her elected as the Head of Irbid’s Council of School Parliaments, which is made up of representatives from not just UNRWA schools but also government and private schools in the region.
Reflecting the new-found energy and initiative of youth across the Middle East, Sara and her fellow students saw the need for confronting human rights issues in a vivid and memorable way.
“We presented our arguments in four ‘papers’,” Sara said. “Two schools worked together on each paper – on tolerance and conflict resolution, the right to dignity, the right to freedom and the right to equality.
“Instead of just talking, we created and performed songs, role-plays, short films, poetry, slide presentations and an art exhibition. We believe can make a much greater impact using these media.”
It seems they were right. Jordan TV picked up the story in its evening news. Nidal Ahmad reports that members of Parliament and journalists were impressed by how the students dealt with such sensitive issues.
And a senior UNRWA official said the event “reflects what we hope for in all our future student generations – hope, honesty and the ability to reflect passionate feelings in a rational way”.