Viewpoint by Assefa Bequele and Alex Kamarotos*
ADDIS ABABA (IDN) – Let us begin with the positive. Unlike some years back, children are now very much on the political and public agenda in Africa. Every politician loves to talk about them, and the African Union has adopted a charter to protect them and a mechanism to hold governments accountable for the fulfilment of their rights. Even so, the reality on the ground is sombre and sobering.
Take children in prisons. We do not have reliable data but the number of child prisoners in Africa is definitely in the thousands, and some statistical calculations suggest that it could be as high as 28,000.
They are victims of a dysfunctional and discriminatory justice system which lets down some of the most vulnerable groups, including girls, children with disabilities, children victims of traffic and orphans. Countless more are deprived of their liberty in detention centres, rehabilitation units or other such institutions.
Locking up thousands of children in prison is surely one of the most challenging human rights violations of modern societies. Detention disproportionally affects children’s physical and mental health disproportionately hard, while torture, sexual abuse and ill-treatment by guards and other inmates is an ever-present threat.
Against this background, children’s rights defenders, campaigners, lawyers, academics, journalists, ministers, policy-makers and law-makers are gathering in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the Continental Conference on Access to Justice for Children in Africa.
The conference will be informed by a report entitled “Spotlighting the invisible: Access to Justice for Children in Africa”. This report shines light on this invisible issue, reveals how children across the continent are denied access to justice, and paints a distressing picture of discrimination, inadequate funding, poor training, unaccountable traditional justice systems and slow progress on children’s rights.
Even if they avoid detention, many children experience gender discrimination, lack of legal support and representation and physical punishment among others. Especially at risk are children with disabilities, children accused of witchcraft, street children, child victims of sexual abuse, children with albinism, children in rural areas, refugees, migrant and asylum-seeking children, trafficked children and orphans.
Unacceptable practices such as corporal punishment and trial by ordeal are still widespread, even in those countries where they are illegal.
Many children will not encounter the judicial system through formal courts but through the “informal justice” system. Traditional, religious, ethnic or community-based justice does have some positive features such as emphasising cooperation, consensus and restitution rather than punishment. It is generally easier to access for the rural poor and the illiterate.
But informal justice – even in those African countries where it is recognised by the formal legal framework – tends to be unregulated. We need to identify and build on their positive aspects while eliminating the unfair treatment associated with them. We need to ensure that these informal justice systems respect and apply the same international standards as the formal justice systems.
This issue of justice for children is by no means a uniquely African problem. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Agency, estimates that worldwide, more than a million children are deprived of their liberty at any one time.
Nor is it all bad news. Since the last conference on this subject in Kampala in 2011, most African countries have adopted laws and standards to protect children in the justice system, and some have child-friendly structures such as dedicated courts and law enforcement units. There has also been some progress around alternatives to formal criminal proceedings and new ways of training law enforcement officers.
However, much more needs to be done. We cannot wait for tomorrow. We have to urgently implement existing laws and policies. We must ensure that the needs of vulnerable groups of children accessing to justice are addressed, and that traditional and religious systems deliver justice that protects all children with no exception. We have to act now!
The future of the African continent is dependent on the full realisation of the rights and wellbeing of our children. [IDN-InDepthNews – 06 May 2018]
* Assefa Bequele and Alex Kamarotos, respectively Executive Directors of the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) and Defence for Children International (DCI), offered this viewpoint to IDN.
Spotlighting the Invisible: The Continental Conference on Access to Justice for Children is jointly organised by ACPF and DCI and is being held at the United Nations Conference Centre (UNCC) in Addis Ababa from May 8-10, 2018. It can be followed on @AfriChildForum and @DCIsecretariat using #ChildJusticeAfrica. More information can be found at https://www.childjusticeinafrica.info/
*IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
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