Monday, 18 June 2018 05:57

AFRICA: Shining a spotlight on the hidden scandal of child justice

Even as you read this, thousands of children are incarcerated in prisons across Africa. I’ll pause to let that sink in. Thousands of children behind bars, deprived of their liberty, victims of a dysfunctional and discriminatory justice system which lets down some of the most vulnerable groups — including girls, disabled children, trafficked children and orphans.

Locking up children in prison is surely one of the most damning indictments of a modern society. Data on children in prisons is hard to come by. But the number of child prisoners is definitely in the thousands, and some statistical calculations suggest that it could be as high as 28,000. In any case, whatever the numbers, no child should be kept in prison. Incarceration hits 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. Yet across Africa children are locked up out of sight and out of mind — an invisible stain on the continent’s human rights record.

The sheer number of child prisoners — and the countless thousands more locked up in detention centres, rehabilitation units, children’s homes and other such institutions across Africa — is shocking enough. But even if they avoid detention, many children experience gender discrimination, lack of representation, physical punishment, no right of appeal and no minimum age. Inhumane practices such as corporal punishment and trial by ordeal are still considered acceptable punishments in some African countries and societies.

That’s why, this week I’m joining children’s rights campaigners, lawyers, academics, journalists, heads of state, policy-makers and law-makers at a major conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to try and find a way forward. The Continental Conference on Access to Justice for Children in Africa — organised by Africa Child Policy Forum (AFPF) and Defence for Children International (DCI) — brings together some of the leading experts in the field. We all share one concern: how to ensure that all African children can get access to justice and are treated fairly by the judicial system.

It’s by no means a uniquely African problem. UNICEF estimates that worldwide, more than a million children are imprisoned at any one time. And I’m not out to “name and shame” — although there’s no avoiding the fact that some countries have a particularly poor track record. It’s a hugely complex issue, it’s not going to be solved it overnight, and it’s not all bad news. There’s been some progress in recent years — most African countries now have laws and standards to protect children in the justice system, and some have child-friendly structures such as dedicated courts and law enforcement units. Since the last conference in Kampala in 2011, there’s also been some progress around alternatives to formal criminal proceedings and new ways of training law enforcement officers.

However, many children will not encounter the judicial system through formal courts but through so-called “informal justice”. Traditional, religious, ethnic or community-based justice does have some positive features such as emphasising restitution rather than punishment, cooperation and consensus, and easier access for the rural poor and the illiterate. But I worry that some aspects of informal justice present a potential risk for children’s protection, and even in those African countries where it is recognised by the formal legal framework, it tends to be unregulated. Much more research needs to be done on informal justice systems across Africa, and how they impact on the rights and welfare of children — both to identify and build on their positive aspects, and to eliminate unfair treatment.

It is shocking that in 2018, many thousands of African children are still being let down by an unfair, inconsistent and discriminatory justice system. Even more disturbing is that very few people are even aware of the scale of the problem, which is why ACPF and others are shining a spotlight on this hidden scandal. But I’m confident that if governments implement our recommendations, access to justice for African children will be significantly improved so it comes into line with international fundamental principles and standards on child rights.

By Martin Atkin

Source: Medium

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