Justice Systems Must Be More Responsive and Protective of African Children

By Graça Machel, Board Chair, African Child Policy Forum (ACPF)

The legendary editor of the Guardian newspaper, CP Scott, famously declared that “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” Unfortunately, when it comes to hard evidence on how many children worldwide are locked up in prisons, detention centres, migrant and refugee camps, rehabilitation units or other institutions, the facts are more scarce than sacred. Estimates vary wildly and there is no singular source of accurate data for these figures.

The UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty - due to be presented to the UN General Assembly this September - aims to address this data gap. Estimates vary widely between 15,000 and 28,000, but conventional wisdom dictates that the figures are likely worse than even the highest estimates. 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 lack of reliable data makes it hard to identify any particular country or region as being worse than another. The recent Continental Conference on Access for Children to Justice in Africa, convened by the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) and its partners, which was held in Addis Ababa from May 8 to 10, 2018, made it clear that African children are being very poorly served indeed by the justice systems meant to uphold their rights and protect them. Despite some progress in recent years, the conference heard how vulnerable groups such as girls, children with disabilities, victims of trafficking, sexual abuse and violence, orphans, refugees and migrants are routinely discriminated against - denied access to justice, to adequate legal representation and to fair trial.

ACPF convened this gathering to call on African Governments, NGOs, UN and other international agencies, research institutions, child rights experts as well as media to highlight the injustices children are facing within African judicial systems. The more than 200 participants of this conference committed themselves to giving a face and a voice to these children and making access to justice a reality for all youth on the continent.

The Call to Action adopted by the Conference pulls no punches, noting that children remain predominantly invisible in the justice systems in Africa, that efforts so far have been “piecemeal”; that traditional, customary or religious justice mechanisms remain largely unregulated and render children particularly vulnerable, and that African laws need to be brought into line with international standards and principles such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

The Call to Action makes it clear it is our collective responsibility to ensure progress – governments, the African Union, UN agencies, civil society and non-governmental organisations, academics, and multilateral development agencies. No one can shirk their responsibility. However, calling for action is one thing, delivering it is another.

African countries must make greater strides towards improved access to justice for children. Indicators along this path of progress are 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. While 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, systematic implementation of policies and laws is necessary for true progress to be made.

Some countries such as Uganda report a significant drop in the number of children being detained, which is cause for optimism. Elsewhere, there are trials of new technology such as “virtual courts” to lessen the stress of children having to appear in person as well. Nonetheless, progress is painfully slow, and all the while another generation of children is experiencing discrimination and ill-treatment at the hands of the very justice systems which are intended to protect them.

As the Call to Action concludes: “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!”

Vulnerable groups such as girls, children with disabilities, victims of trafficking, sexual abuse and violence, orphans and refugees are routinely discriminated against - denied access to justice, to adequate legal representation and to fair trial.