Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Future of the Nation

The Washington Post has a fascinating article on the so-called "Children's Parliament" of the Congo, an institution which makes my old Student Congress days seem like the mere extra-curricular that it was. Congo's civil service is in shambles, with untrained bureaucrats, a barely-existent infrastructure, no money to pay employees, and rampant corruption. So, in some areas of the country, local officials, in concert with the UN, have organized area teenagers into a "parliament" (really more of a quasi-judiciary) to help administer justice.
With government institutions, including the courts, hobbled by decades of corruption and neglect, one of the few bodies still reliably administering justice is a parliament run by, and mostly for, children.

Launched in 2002, the U.N. initiative has since taken on a life of its own, with 150 members and little day-to-day adult supervision.

One recent Friday, there were no adults in sight except those pleading for help from the children. The parliament's officers took a break from a busy schedule -- lobbying to free children from prison that morning, four cases in the afternoon -- to discuss their work.

"Mostly children bring cases here," said Arthur Omar Kayumba, 16, seated at a desk on which a folded piece of paper read "Vice-President."

"Sometimes they are accusing their parents of not taking care of them, or women are accusing their husbands of not supporting the children," he said. "Since January, we've had more than 105 cases."

The teenagers are elected by their peers, hear cases, negotiate with local officials, and issue decisions. The teenagers can't enforce laws on their own, but they can contact police forces, and even without formal authority they bring to bear a surprising amount of moral suasion. With access to resources and local radio stations, they host debates on a wide array of topics, such as gender discrimination. And many dream of a career in politics, to continue their work of rebuilding the strife-ridden nation.

The article notes that, in the Congo, children "grow up fast." Too many are forced to join militias, others are child laborers. In such a context, it is heartening that some children are "growing up", even if fast, by learning how to become civic leaders and statesman, not soldiers.

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