Empowerment through music: Lebanon’s choir against child labour

Children who have a history of child labour have embarked on a musical journey led by the ILO and Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour, and have taken their talents to Lebanon’s Presidential Palace for their first ever performance.

Feature | 04 June 2018
BEIRUT (ILO News) – Lebanon has a new children’s choir – but this is a choir with a difference. All its members have, at some point in their lives, engaged in child labour – some in its worst and most hazardous forms.

The UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) and Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour teamed up with choirmaster and conductor Selim Sahab late last year, setting up the National Choir against Child Labour, to empower children and give them a voice through music.

After numerous auditions conducted across the country involving over 1,200 children, some 180 children were selected to form the choir.

“Music is an essential thing in my life,” said Omar, one of the children who auditioned for the choir in the Ouzai suburb of Beirut. “It makes me express what's in my heart, things that are paining me. When I sit alone and I sing, I feel that everything in my heart that's bothering me comes out.”

Maestro Sahab echoed those feelings. “I believe that music is one of the most powerful of the so-called soft forces – even though music is very strong, and not soft at all - as it has a huge emotional impact on the children's psychological state,” Sahab said.

Contrary to global trends, child labour has increased in Lebanon as well as in other neighbouring countries, largely fuelled by the influx of refugees desperate for income. Both local and refugee communities have been affected.

The choir includes Lebanese as well as Syrian and Palestinian refugee children.

Empowerment and advocacy through music

Research shows that music education can empower children, build their skills and, crucially, encourage them to go to, and stay in, school.

The children will also use their talents to advocate against a scourge which affects thousands of children across Lebanon.

“This is not about entertainment,” said ILO Deputy Regional Director for Arab States Frank Hagemann. “It’s about empowering children through music, giving them back their dignity, and speaking to their motivation to improve their lives.”

The ILO-led initiative is also supported by the Ministry of Culture and the National Higher Conservatory of Music. It is part of efforts to implement Lebanon’s National Action Plan to Eliminate the Worst Forms of Child Labour.

“Entering the world of music will show these children that there is more to life than hard work that debases them and jeopardises their future,” said Minister of Culture Ghattas Khoury.

“Every human being wants to be valued,” said President of the National Higher Conservatory of Music Walid Moussallem. “Being part of an important project, and making music together and feeling appreciated will change their lives.”

From labour to art

Most of the children in the choir were withdrawn from hazardous forms of work, through the efforts of the Ministry of Labour, the ILO, NGOs and civil society organizations. They are currently enrolled in support centres operated by Beyond Association, Home of Hope, and the Union of Palestinian Women.

“These are children who used to work, or still work, and who are enrolled in the centre. Through the choir, we are trying as much as we can to raise their voices as high as possible so that they can advocate for this cause,” said Leila Assi, head of the Child Labour Unit at Beyond Association.

The children trained hard under the direction of Maestro Sahab at the Lebanese International University Auditorium in Beirut and various locations across Lebanon.

First performance

Lebanon’s President, Michel Aounhad invited the choir to hold their first public performance at the Presidential Palace, backed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, to mark National Children’s Day on March 20.

One of the 60 children from the choir who were selected to perform at the Palace is Samah al Mahmoud, a 13-year-old former child labourer who worked in a number of agricultural and factory jobs. Samah has been withdrawn from child labour. She goes to school part-time, and attends a rehabilitation centre run by Beyond.

“At home I used to sing, and I used to watch The Voice and think: Wow! And I really wanted to be in their place,” Samah said as she took a break from rehearsals. “I’ve now achieved my dream: I’m going to perform in front of a lot of people, and I’m not going to be shy.”

The choir’s first performance at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, on the outskirts of the capital Beirut, was attended by the President, cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, international diplomats, UN agency representatives, and members of civil society organizations.

“Today’s children are tomorrow’s men and women,” Aoun told audience members following the performance. “They may need our support and protection today, but we and our nation and our society will need their support and protection tomorrow.”

“A nation that cares for the wellbeing of its people is responsible for protecting its children,” said Minister of Labour Mahamad Kabbara. “Eliminating child labour is a national responsibility.”

Child labour in figures

Globally, ILO figures estimate that between 2000 and 2016, the world saw a net reduction of 94 million children in child labour. Some 152 million girls and boys were engaged in child labour in 2016, accounting for almost 1 in 10 of all children worldwide. Nearly half of them are engaged in hazardous work: work that directly endangers their health, safety and moral development.

In the Arab States region – the Gulf and Middle East, excluding Egypt and North Africa – about 3 per cent of all children are involved in child labour. About half of these children are in hazardous work. Both estimates are the lowest in the world when compared to other regions.

Yet, protracted wars and related humanitarian crises, and mass displacements have seen a sharp rise in child labour in a number of countries in the region in recent years.

In absolute terms, 1.2 million children in the Arab States are in child labour and 616,000 are in hazardous work. Agriculture accounts for 60 per cent of all child labour in the region, while 27 per cent are found in the services sector and 13 per cent in industry.