BEIRUT: They might not all be able to vote, but Lebanon’s young people are playing an important part in political campaigning ahead of the June 7 elections, either by appearing in poster or television campaigns or by handing out flyers. According to a national child’s rights coalition, however, the use of 14-18 year olds in political campaigning often tends to be exploitative.
“Past experiences of parliamentary and municipal elections between 1992 and 2005 have shown that 50-60 percent of electoral mechanisms were mostly based on “youth,”” said Maria Assi on behalf of the Child Protection Working Group (CPWG) on Friday.
“Their presence is not included within their rights to participate or learn about the electoral process,” but is rather harnessed for such responsibilities as hanging up political posters or distributing candidate lists outside of polling stations, she added.
In this politically divided country, those tasks can often lead to violence. “They are used, or rather, abused, as the flames to ignite any potential fires that occur during or after voting,” Assi said.
CPWG gathered Friday to highlight the exploitation of young people in the upcoming elections and urge Lebanon’s different political parties to respect the rights of the country’s youth. “Let children live as the children of today and not as the youth of tomorrow,” said Assi, who is also director of Beyond, a child-rights organization involved in CPWG.
Political parties “probably think that because they are children, they won’t be exposed to any trouble, but [what they are doing] is exploitative,” said Wafa Issa, monitoring and evaluation officer at Right to Play Lebanon, a global child rights organization.
Tasks like distributing flyers “are not always perceived as exploitative or as putting children at risk, but they are.”
Maha Damaj, a child protection officer at UNICEF, agreed. “It’s like sending your child next door for a cup of sugar because it’s less embarrassing than going yourself,” she said of parties that send young people to flyer in areas where their candidate might not be endorsed. “In this case, they can get into squabbles, even against other children.” Encouraging children to attend political rallies is likewise exploitative, she said, as the children might not fully understand the meaning of the event or the party’s political agenda.
The problem is complicated by the fact that children often do not realize they are being exploited, said Issa. “Sometimes they are paid by the party in question,” or the young individual willingly chooses to help because of familial or other peer affiliations, she said.
Issa and CPWG stressed the importance of “positive participation” by Lebanon’s youngsters in political life. “They need to be fully informed about the parties, their involvement should be voluntary, and they need to know what they are getting themselves into,” she said. “We consider any participation that doesn’t necessarily put them at risk but isn’t voluntary as exploitative.”
So far, said Damaj, there was only “anecdotal evidence” that young people were being exploited, but will be verified by the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, a LPWG affiliate, which is collecting evidence about such incidences.