The Arab Penal Reform Organization (APRO) publishes a series of illustrated children’s books called Activist Ali’s Team to educate children and adults of their civil and legal rights as well as to foster a culture of human rights in Egypt. The book series follows a curious ten-year-old named Ali and his male and female companions. Each book – in the series of 36 – focuses on a specific civil or human rights topic. APRO highlights Ali being concerned with the protection of society by the rights and duties guaranteed by law – national laws and international covenants ratified by his country.
Founded in 2004 by Egyptian lawyers, APRO is an independent non-governmental organization headquartered in Cairo that works towards the reform of Egyptian and regional penal policies and prison laws so they conform to international law. More broadly, APRO seeks to spread a culture of human rights and to inform Egyptian citizens of their rights under Egyptian and international law. A primary segment of the population are Egyptian youth. Egyptians ages 6 to 18 years old make up 36 percent of the population and Egyptians ages 6 to 35 years make up 69 percent of the population. Yet youth are marginalized by poor education, poverty, and unemployment after graduation. Human rights and non-governmental organizations have thus concluded that political reform and change cannot happen without fostering a culture of human rights and democracy among the youth.
The Activist Ali’s Team children’s book series responds to this need and promotes awareness of civil and legal rights through the adventures of a curious ten-year-old named Ali. Ali is “concerned with the protection of society by the rights and duties guaranteed by law, as well as international covenants ratified by his country, Egypt. Immutable rights and the imposed duties protect the citizens of Egypt, Ali wonders why do we not know about these basic human rights?” [http://www.activistali.org/eng/index_en.html] In the first book of the series Ali meets a genie in his computer named Internetawy, who teaches Ali that computers are not just used for games but also used to seek out valuable information and connect with other people. Ali also learns from his father that an activist is someone who tries to change society for the better. Afterwards, Ali and his friends form an activist's club and in each book they encounter a serious social or political problem in Egypt that they try to correct.
For example, book number three in the series, Dreams of Bahbouha and Zanana, brings up issues sensitive in Egypt surrounding gender inequality and child welfare by telling the story of two ten-year-old girls named Bahbouha and Zanana, who were forced to work as household servants instead of remaining in school. After witnessing the plight of Bahbouha and Zanana, two female members of Activist Ali’s Team call the club together to try to figure out a plan of action and their meeting educates the readers on child welfare organizations in Egypt and international organizations like the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Ali and his activist team also make concrete steps to solve the problem posed in each book. In the case of Bahbouha and Zanana, they find neighbors to donate desks and school books, and teachers to volunteer their time to educate the two girls.
Other issues facing Egyptians that the book series examines are: child homelessness, corporal punishment, consumer safety, animal cruelty, pollution and the environment, labor unions, and Sudanese refugees in Egypt.
At the end of each book in the series there is a brief explanation of the law or international human rights convention that applies to the story. These explanations not only educate children, but parents and teachers reading the story to children are informed in detail on their own civil rights in Egypt, of various human rights concepts, and of which international conventions Egypt has set into law. In The Dreams of Bahbouha and Zanana, for example, the authors explain the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and that Egypt adopted the convention into law.
The Failure of the Eraser tells the story of an elementary school election where Activist Ali’s Team learns lessons about the perils of using intimidation, bribery and fraud to win elections. The events of the book’s student election parallel many of the incidents that take place during real-life parliamentary elections. At the end of the story, the author explains Egyptian Law No. 73/1956 which states there is a penalty of imprisonment for six months or a fine for “everyone who uses violence or threat to prevent any person from voting in an election.” [http://www.activistali.org/eng/Stories/The_%20failure_of_the_eraser/Defa...
Besides publishing the Activist Ali’s Team book series, APRO has engaged youth in human rights issues through the Activist Ali’s Team website and through publishing stories written by Egyptian children. In 2007, APRO held a competition for children to write stories that address human rights issues. APRO held a party in a hotel honoring 300 children who participated in the contest. The issues and ideas raised by the children were incorporated in the Activist Ali book series as well as publishing some of their stories in their periodical “Youth News.” All of the Activist Ali books and “Youth News” issues are available in Arabic and English online at www.activistali.org.
While the long term success of APRO’s goal of fostering a culture of human rights in Egypt can not be immediately assessed, the large number of stories and drawings by Egyptian children submitted for publication is evidence of the success of the Activist Ali’s Team book series. The book series received wide local and international media coverage and won a distinguished award from the United Nations Development Project in 2007. Mohamed Zarea, director of APRO, said that with the cooperation of the Ministry of Education and the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights, the organization has been able to distribute 450,000 copies of Activist Ali’s Team books to youth clubs, schools, shelters, orphanages, hospitals and cultural centers.
Despite the fact that the Activist Ali book series have been praised by the Egyptian Ministry of Education, the project ran into a roadblock in 2008. In February of that year the local security forces in the governorates of Upper Egypt removed the books from school libraries and banned them saying they were a threat to state security. The government confiscated and returned more than 60,000 books to APRO. APRO now only distributes the books to private schools, detention centers and hospitals.
The effectiveness of the book series lies in the fact that the subjects dealt with, such as homelessness, child labor, unfair elections and gender inequality, are salient issues children of all backgrounds will encounter in Egypt. Further, APRO involves children by publishing their stories in a youth newspaper, “Youth News,” Including more detailed information on specific laws and human rights conventions gives adults a chance to educate themselves as well. Yet it is important to note that even initial permission from the government did not turn out to be a guarantee for APRO that it could freely distribute the Activist Ali’s Team books, which cover controversial subjects. APRO was able to further distribute the books though by focusing on private school and targeted institution distribution.
New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.
Children’s literature can be an effective way to engage young people in an early exploration of human rights issues. These books educate on human rights issues, but through an exploration of Ali’s adventures and activism, the books also foster a spirit of service and involvement.