en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 31, Number 1January/February 1980

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Years of the Child

Written by John Lawton and Katrina Thomas
Additional photographs by Katrina Thomas

The International Year of the Child, with its committees, slogans and good intentions, is over, but not - at least in the Arab world - forgotten. In the Arab world, every year is the Year of the Child.

Sponsored by the United Nations, the International Year of the Child -1979 was an effort to focus, world attention on the plight of children everywhere; to a large extent it was successful. Virtually all the countries belonging to the U.N. set up special committees to stimulate action in the fields of legislation, recreation arid culture during the Year of the Child.

In many of the Arab countries, however, the public ceremonies, launching the children's year were, as one group put it, "but a stimulant for further action". And that action is continuing as national committees set up for 1979 - in the fields of education, health, nutrition, social services, recreation, and culture - are turned into permanent bodies.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, the National Committee for the International Year of the Child has been renamed it has become the Saudi National Commission for Child Welfare - and established as a permanent advocacy body for children. Headed by the Minister of Education, the commission is composed of two councils. The first is the Supreme Council of Child Welfare, consisting of nine deputy ministers and one vice-president of the ministries and agencies involved in child welfare.

The second is the Planning and Follow-up Council, composed to 13 directors general and heads of departments of the same institutions. As its name suggests the council's job will be to guarantee that the momentum generated during 1979 is not lost and that the work begun then continues. This includes nationwide vaccination campaigns, the creation of public parks for children in all cities, plus a program to intensify maternity and child care in existing hospitals and extend it to the far corners of the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia's neighbours, moreover, are following suit - as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) noted in monitoring the transition from temporary enthusiasm to permanent commitment in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

"Early International Year of the Child activities in the countries in the area concentrated mainly on ceremonies, festivals, and parades. Later, however, the trend turned towards activities of direct long-term impact on children, assessment of children's needs, review of policies and programs in the fields of health, nutrition and education, determining priorities and providing for the most needy and neglected groups".

Furthermore, the U.N. reported, "Members of almost all national commissions realized they should turn their committees into permanent bodies to provide for the harmonious continuation and, where appropriate, expansion of initiatives undertaken during 1979."

These initiatives included the establishment in Sharjah of a regional rehabilitation center for mentally retarded and physically handicapped children, a program to set up 178 kindergartens and day-care centers in Qatar, and establishment of a children's cultural center in Bahrain. Other plans included extensions of child welfare services to 35 villages in Oman, and construction of a children's village in the city of Kuwait.

In fact, says the United Nations, the response to International Children's Year by organizations, authorities and individuals in the Gulf was nothing short of "overwhelming".

Nor was it restricted to children of their own lands. It included "a very generous government allocation for deprived children of other developing countries in the Arab world, Africa, and Asia".

Elsewhere in the Arab world, response to the International Year of the Child was also enthusiastic and, besides the concerts and contests, surveys and seminars, included many novel schemes. Morocco, for example, set up kindergartens in women's prisons in Casablanca, Marrakech and Fez. Syria abolished import taxes on children's toys. Somalia composed a special children's anthem. Yemen gave "top priority" to children's programs in its current five-year development plan and Jordan set up a children's shop foundation aimed at providing basic commodities for children at minimum cost.

In Lebanon, a campaign was launched to remove from identity cards of illegitimate children the words "father unknown" in order not to harm the child's future, while in Egypt the government opened 225 new pre-school centers, including three foreign-language kindergartens. Egypt also set up a toy workshop in Alexandria using nothing but waste material.

Private organizations also made major contributions to the success of the International Year of the Child in the Arab world. Singled out by the United Nations for special praise were the Child and Family Welfare Association of Bahrain, the Red Crescent in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates Women's Union and the Kuwaiti Association for Rehabilitation of the Handicapped.

Arab leaders played an especially significant role. President Shaikh Zayed, for example, launched a fund-raising campaign in the United Arab Emirates with a personal donation of $1 million while Shaikh Sultan al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, donated a 250-acre site on which to build a rehabilitation center for retarded children.

Behind this wholehearted response to the Year of the Child stimulus are two impulses: need and tradition - and the need is obvious. Each minute three more babies are born somewhere in the Middle East and of the Arab world's 140 million people, some 45 per cent are under the age of 15. And in some countries - such as Egypt or Morocco - more than half the population is under 20.

But the stronger impulse, probably, is the tradition that "children are the wealth of the Arab world." This, no doubt, can be said of many peoples, but in the Arab world that feeling is particularly strong, as one oft-told tale suggests.

It is a tale of a stranger who visits two houses. The first has many children, but no light, while the second house has many lamps but no children. Upon which the stranger remarks, "The house with many children was lighted, but the house with many lamps was dark".

Arabs have always derived great joy from children, whom they consider a gift from God. In some areas the traditions go back a long way. Boys, for example, are particularly prized, and it is said that in certain Bedouin tribes the person who reaches a father first with news of the birth of a son may still be rewarded with a sheep, or even a camel.

Other Arab traditions, of course, spring from Islamic custom. Names, for example, are most frequently drawn from Islamic history and one writer, indeed, has said that Muhammad, the name of the Prophet, is the most popular name in the world. Other names famous in Islamic history, and therefore common in the Arab world, are 'Umar, Walid and Khalid for boys, and Khadija and Aisha for girls, although Arab attachment to nature - and poetry - also shows up in such names as Nur ("light") and Nawara ("blossom"), and cultural values are built into such names as Sharif ("honest") and Fadila ("gracious").

Some Muslims name the baby on the seventh day after birth, when the Muslim Profession of Faith is whispered in the baby's ear by the imam or by the eldest member of the family. A charming custom still observed in parts of Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the seventh day is that of showing the baby the house, when, accompanied by singing and the banging of tambourines, and surrounded by children carrying candles, the richly dressed baby is carried by a grandmother or aunt from room to room.

As a baby and toddler, the Arab child is never far from its mother. Mothers carry an infant everywhere, first in the arms and then astride the hip. Bedouin women may bind their babies into a goatskin carrier, which can be hooked over the shoulder, hung on a tent pole, or laid on the desert sand.

Later, though, it is the father who becomes the paramount figure in the life of an Arab child - when the child is about four. But although from then on the father becomes the symbol of authority and chief disciplinarian, he is rarely cold or aloof; to the contrary, most Arab fathers are warm, affectionate and tender toward children.

In the life of the Arab child, however, fathers and mothers are not the sole source of love and affection. Uncles, older cousins and grandparents also play an important part in bringing up the Arab child. Arab culture is a kinship culture in which the "nuclear family" - parents and children - exists within the framework of an extended circle of relatives and friends, whose interdependence in life is very strong.

Because of this, says Audrey Shabbas, co-founder of Arab World Consultants, an educational consulting firm, the Arab child has many more avenues of guidance, help and friendship than the average Western child.

"Pampered and spoiled by a family of many adults, the Arab child is the object of a great deal of physical contact," says Shabbas, adding that childhood in urban areas "lasts long and is a time of carefree games and amusements within a large circle of cousins, relatives and neighborhood friends".

Nevertheless the Arab child, later, seems neither as free nor as carefree as his Western counterpart. When among adults Arab children behave like adults, usually not speaking but sitting quietly at the side of the grown-ups. Amazingly, the children rarely squirm or fidget, moving only to offer candy to guests. In the villages and fields, children assume adult responsibilities at an early age, tending goats, collecting firewood and doing household chores.

As elsewhere, education of children is of great importance in the Arab world, particularly today as the current drive to modernize and expand education in the Arab states reaches its peak.

This drive, a reaction perhaps against the years when education declined, is particularly noteworthy in Saudi Arabia, possibly the most rapidly developing country in the Arab world and one of the most conscious of the need to educate and train its young people. Almost from the day that Abd al-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud united most of the Arabian Peninsula, education has been high on the list of priorities. It was not until 1954, however, that establishment of a kingdom-wide, modern system of education really got underway.

In that year 50,000 students were enrolled in 469 schools, whereas, now, there are some 5,832 government schools with more than 700,000 pupils of all ages and some 39,000 teachers.

Education services, says Shabbas, co-author of The Arab World: A Handbook for Teachers, vary from one Arab country to the next. Many are compulsory, some have separate facilities for girls. All are free, some including university and other schooling abroad. Some receive as much as 20 per cent of their country's annual budget, and a few have as desirable a student-teacher ratio as 12 to 1.

Education to an Arab family, however, means much more than what takes place in the formal school setting. "Although the school meets the academic requirements, it is the family," says Shabbas, "which instills in the Arab child a value system, social conscience, and the very rules which govern daily life and a complex system of social interaction".

A system of etiquette, called adab in Arabic, teaches the well-behaved child, who is termed muddab, to obey parents, respect elders and be generous, co-operative and helpful to all. Proverbs, used to accentuate everyday conversation, teach the Arab child to be honest and hard working, and reproach those who gossip, quarrel or lie - such as the popular saying that a "fresh and happy face" together with fresh water and fresh green are the three things in the world that give most joy.

In socializing the Arab child, the emphasis is on raising him to be a member of the group. On asking a teenager in Amman, of mixed Jordanian and American parentage, how Arab children differ from Americans, he answered that Arab children are friendlier and help one another more. At a very early age, for instance, Arab children instinctively look after young visitors without regard to age, and with the same attention that parents give to adult guests.

Thus psychologically prepared, says Shabbas, and with access to greatly improved medical care and the necessary education, the Arab child is well equipped to take advantage of the opportunities of the future - opportunities that this international year has highlighted and - at least in the Arab world - has advanced significantly.

John Lawton is the Editor of a new international English-language daily newspaper soon to appear in London.

This article appeared on pages 36-40 of the January/February 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1980 images.