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Child Justice in Africa

May 11, 2007 · 

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By Augustine Sam
MESSENGER OF ST. ANTHONY – MAY 2007

For 350 million young people across sub-Saharan Africa subsisting amid poverty, diseases, orphan hood and a faltering juvenile justice system, running foul of the law seems to be the only way out.

HUMAN RIGHTS is often an issue in Africa. And that appears to be because, in this region, with a good chunk of the population ravaged by war, and family life disrupted by threats of further war, the justice system has always been in tatters. Still, most African nations are said to have embraced, even if in theory, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, including some of the rules for treating child offenders. Some African countries have even enacted or drafted laws to make its provisions binding. But in a continent where poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and the AIDS pandemic compete for attention, juvenile justice has moved from being a second or third-tier is sue, to an outright tragedy. Last year, a cursory review of child justice across sub-Saharan Africa, left journalists perplexed.

Brutal conditions
In one report, it was said that while the sub-Saharan nations endorse international norms for fair ness and humanity, employing staff members and benefiting from foreign donations, their juvenile-justice routinely delivers injustice and brutality instead. In some places, children were found locked up with adult criminals in old prisons. Some of these children recounted their weeks in tiny police- station cages. Many others still languish in rehabilitation centres with little food, few beds, no activities and no electricity. A good number of them had stayed well beyond their sentences simply because there was no money to send them home.

“A lot of these countries are trying to constitute children’s rights,” said Louise Ehlers, a juvenile-justice expert for the Open Society Foundation in South Africa, “but when you look at their resources, it just blows you away,” she said. “In places like Zambia, you can’t even start talking about the things we are talking about here. There’s no electricity, no vehicle to get a child from point A to point B; and no facilities for children awaiting trial”. One fundamental problem many juvenile-justice officials face is that millions of children lack birth certificates. It was said that children nearing legal adulthood, usually 17, are difficult to tell from adults, while adult offenders often claim to be juveniles. As a result, many officials of ten regard all but obvious children as adults, and treat them accordingly.

Complains abound of children who have been beaten and robbed by police officers who arrested them, jailers who imprisoned them or inmates who shared their cells. One child said last year that he had been locked naked in a cell for three days with five adults who beat him and took his food; another said he was in his fourth year in an adult prison, awaiting trial, without ever seeing a judge. Many children, especially boys, routinely face detention for such minor offences as stealing a phone or having sex with a girlfriend. In most parts of sub-Saharan Africa, underage sex is described as defilement, whose penalty, in theory, is death. Girls usually buy protection from the law by offering themselves to corrupt policemen.

Defilement trials
In the Ugandan capital, Kampala, the Naguru Remand Home, a complex of brick halls originally built in 1954 for 45 inmates, with windows shrouded in wire mesh, is now home to some 86 boys, ages 12 to 17. Of this number 36 Face defilement charges. And they are said to be the unlucky ones as defilement charges here frequently amount to blackmail: a boy who pays a girl’s parents for violating her virginity almost always goes free, the one who can not pay faces prosecution, even if the girl was a willing partner. Girls, by law, cannot be similarly charged. One such unlucky inmate, a 17-year-old boy who was interviewed last year, said he could nor produce the demanded 70,000 Ugandan Shillings (about $40) to mollify the girl’s parents. Though he has not yet gone to trial, this boy, accused of ‘defiling’ his employer’s 16-year-old daughter – a charge he has denied – seems to have already paid a heavy price.

“I spent two weeks in a police cell,” he said. “1 was beaten. I was forced to make statements which I wasn’t willing to make. I was being forced to accept that I really de filed that girl”. His ordeal began in December 2005. He has since spent more than a year in detention awaiting trial, even though the law in Uganda limits such pre-trial detentions to six months; the reason being that only Uganda’s High Court can hear capital charges. But the High Court docket is already teeming with similar cases. “Over 50 percent of cases heard by the High Court are defilement cases,” said Richard Buteera, the country’s director of public prosecutions. “Cases come in from all over the country.”

As a result of this, some children have had to wait two years for defilement trials. The High Court does not have enough money to assemble lawyers, witnesses and evidence for hearings. Such deficits affect the Nagum Remand Home as well. “We have no fuel,” said Rose Etir, a social worker at the home. “Now two weeks we are not going to court, almost three, and the inmates are escaping. They climb on the roof and they jump the fence”. Across the region, where 350 million young people often subsist amid poverty, orphan hood and separation from their parents, running foul of the law is a fact of life, despite the direness of the justice system.

It is no better either at the country’s National Rehabilitation Centre, where government food deliveries have been described as “hit or miss,” with the centre having to rely on fortified meals from the World Food Pro gram, which is often insufficient. In large part, the Centre faces such ills as sporadic water supply, lack of furniture, absence of electricity in the girls’ dorm for two years, no job training and little to eat. As a direct consequence, inmates often escape or at tempt to do so.

“They escape when there is no food,” said the Centre’s programme manager, Orin Nsereko. “When there is food,” she explained, “it’s very hard for them to escape”.

Malnourished inmates
Many other African countries do not fair any better. In the Mozambique capital, Maputo, about 60 children are reported to await trial in a stifling, ancient dorm of the main prison, their cots and mats arranged as far as possible from the outhouse. In the so called juvenile-detention section – a dorm in the national prison — only 3 of 60 inmates have so far been tried.

In Sierra Leone, which is among the world’s least developed nations, the juvenile detention centre is the Kingdom Remand Home, a dilapidated mess that British donors renovated last November. Though its new roof, freshly plastered walls and refurbished dorms make it a far better refuge than Freetown’s mean streets, it remains an uneasy place for kids. Fourteen children escaped from there last October and vanished in the wasteland of derelict buildings and furrowed al leys that it is set in, because, as the Home’s matron said, there was not enough food. The lone guard who would have stopped them was on his deathbed, and was yet to be replaced.

Two years ago, after a guard beat a young inmate to death, and hid his body in a plastic bag, the Sierra Leonean government promised wide spread changes. Yet, though the fragile administration has a justice plan and support from British donors, it has no one at the Justice Ministry responsible for juvenile justice. At a sister ministry such as the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs — which caters to five million people – the annual budget is reportedly $250,000. Only a meager part of that is spent on child justice. Consequently, there are few social workers, few probation officers, few lawyers and few judges – and fewer still trained in children’s rights.

Juvenile justice across sub-Saharan Africa, experts say, is not taken as seriously as it should be, even though the child rights legislation in some countries, like Uganda, may seem like a model for the continent. But Africa’s justice system seems able to match its ideals only where fate or fortune places money, a compassionate government official and a programme by a children’s charity — a combination that rarely materialises. According to reports, many governments show a willingness to improve the system, but reforms face a cultural divide, especially in rural communities, where the concept of children’s rights is largely unknown. In fact, the global child rights standards adopted by African parliaments trickle down here rather sluggishly. And that, said Geert Cappelaere, director of UNICEF in Sierra Leone, is the problem.

Traditional justice?
Some experts argue that many juvenile offences might be better handled by traditional justice practices which focus less on punishment than on apologies and compensation for victims. According to them, Western-style justice systems that are supposed to deliver equal and humane treatment often get bogged down in Africa by cost and complexity. Yet, traditional justice also has its drawbacks, as some have noted. Those who argue against it say it is not ideal for the simple reason that a child rapist, for instance, might be made to expiate his sin by marrying his victim and paying dowry to her parents; while not taking into account the possible trauma of a victim forced to marry the same person who violated her.

Owing to this, most experts insist the best system would be to blend Western human rights values with traditional solutions. But such a sys tem could take decades to establish. So, for now, the focus is on sealing the holes in the existing ones.

-END-

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