By Dr Assefa Bequele, Executive Director, African Child Policy Forum (ACPF)
We’re often told that actions speak louder than words, and it’s true we won’t change lives by simply talking about the problems. But I also think that you can’t make a real impact unless you’ve thoroughly debated and agreed what needs to be done. Words first, then actions.
I was reminded of this at the Continental Conference on Access to Justice for Children, held recently in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. More than two hundred child rights experts, politicians, lawyers and civil society activists came together to try and find a way forward for the thousands of children across Africa who are denied access to justice. It’s easy for the cynics to dismiss such conferences as talking shops - fine words and discussions, but little in the way of concrete action. And if we had simply presented and debated the issues, there could have been some truth in that.
You might have thought that, faced with such an undoubtedly tough challenge, there would be an air of pessimism hanging over the conference. And there’s no getting away from the fact that we heard some truly terrible stories of children suffering when they come into contact with the justice system. But there was a genuine feeling that change for the better can and will happen. Professor Julia Sloth-Nielsen from the University of the Western Cape summed up the spirit of optimism: “We have a real chance to make a difference on the ground. I say this with hope and expectation.”
Despite having so many views represented in the conference, our Call to Action was drafted and agreed unanimously. It’s series of specific and realistic measures which will make a huge difference to those children who have been let down by the justice system, and which will do much to bring Africa into line with international principles and standards of children’s rights. The Call to Action makes it clear that African Governments, the African Union, UN agencies, civil society organisations, NGOs, academics, multilateral and development agencies must all play their part and will be held to account if they don’t: “There is an imperative on all of us to act now, as the future of our continent depends on ensuring justice for our children today!”
Calling for action is one thing, delivering it is another. It won’t be easy, but I am heartened by what has happened since the previous conference, held in Kampala in 2011. As the Call to Action notes, “African countries are making strides towards improved access to justice for children in Africa. The path of progress is marked by, among other things, law and policy reform processes at the national level which recognise the rights of children in the justice system, as well as progressive growth in services that give effect to the laws.” Over the course of the conference we heard encouraging reports which prove progress is possible. For example, many African countries now have laws and standards to protect children in the justice system, and some have child-friendly structures such as dedicated child courts and law enforcement units. Elsewhere, some states are testing the use of new technology so that appearing in court is less scary, and others report a significant drop in the number of children being detained. Another speaker noted a welcome shift in attitude in recent years towards violence against women and girls: “It is a global phenomenon, but awareness that it is fundamentally wrong is growing.”
Despite this progress, however, the scale of the problem remains daunting. One of the major challenges we face is that we simply don’t know exactly what we are dealing with. Reliable data is scarce, and much evidence is anecdotal. How many children are deprived of their liberty? How many are subjected to corporal and other inhumane punishments? How many pass through the largely unregulated informal justice system? As my colleague Alex Kamarotos from Defence for Children International put it: “The first challenge is to identify the numbers, because you can’t deal with the problem if you don’t know how big it is.”
You might think it would be fairly straightforward to find out, for example, how many children are locked up in prison at any one time, but estimates vary wildly. Even the much-quoted UNICEF figure of more than a million children in prison worldwide is out of date. As Professor Manfred Nowak, Independent Expert at the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty noted, the true figure is almost certainly much higher. In any case, whatever the numbers, no child should be kept in prison. Detention should only ever be used as a last resort, and then only for the shortest possible time.
The UN Global Study is hugely important because, for the first time, we will have an accurate picture of how many children are incarcerated or detained in prisons, detention centres, refugee and migrant camps, rehabilitation units or other institutions. On the third day of our conference we looked at how Africa can both feed into the global study and learn from it. Children are deprived of their liberty for many different reasons, including when they come into conflict with the law, when they are caught up in armed conflicts or national security clampdowns, or as migrants and refugees. It’s important to remember we are dealing not with statistics but with individual, vulnerable children. Karabo Ozah from the Center for Law at the University of Pretoria spoke for us all when she said “It’s my hope this study leads to seeing children as children. They may be migrants, child soldiers, criminals, refugees, orphans or victims of trafficking. But first and foremost they are children.”