Why I’m cautiously optimistic about access to justice for African children
By Assefa Bequele, Executive Director, ACPF 10 May 2018
Sitting in a grand meeting room of the United Nations Conference Centre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, surrounded by more than 200 child rights experts and colleagues participating in the Continental Conference on Access to Justice for Children in Africa, it’s easy to feel isolated from the real world. But beyond the the gates of the UN compound, you don’t have to look very hard to find distressing, sometimes shocking examples of children being let down by the justice system.
Inside the conference hall, we have heard numerous examples of African children who are denied access to justice. Children with disabilities who face barriers both physical and attitudinal. Children in refugee and migrant camps who are prey to sexual abuse, violence and trafficking. Child soldiers who are treated as criminals rather than victims. Girls who end up in adult detention centres far from home, with the attendant risk of rape, prostitution and trafficking. Orphans who are kept locked up because they have no adult guardian they can go to upon release. It’s a long list, and a depressing one.
It’s not all bad news however, and we have heard encouraging stories from across Africa. In Namibia, for example, electronic case management systems and virtual courtrooms are being pioneered to enhance access to justice for children. In Kenya, the government is working with news media to break the cycle of negative reporting around vulnerable children. Uganda has managed to dramatically reduce the number of children being detained, even when they are found guilty in court. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the most effective - in Burundi, pink files are used to hold children’s case documents, so judges and other court officials can tell at a glance they are dealing with a child, and approach the case with the appropriate mindset. We heard how in some countries, such as Burkina Faso, children are increasingly being seen as ‘actors with voices’ - in other words that they can, and should, be active participants in the justice system.
But it is clear that, despite progress in recent years, a vast amount still needs to be done. Technology can help but it is a double-edged sword - during the session on using technology to help children access justice, one speaker noted that the digital divide risks leaving the most vulnerable behind. Most 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 - but as one speaker put it: “It’s not true to say there has been no implementation of the law - it is happening, but it is piecemeal.” I find it particularly sad that some groups - among them girls, children with disabilities, orphans, street children, victims of sexual abuse and trafficking - are still badly served by the justice system in many African countries. I was especially struck by the insight of one delegate who observed that vulnerability leads to marginalisation, which in turn leads to invisibility: “marginalised children are rendered invisible, and become voiceless in decisions that affect their lives.” Another speaker commented: “It has been repeatedly said that we should give children a voice. Children know where it pains them most.”
By the end of the conference, you could sense the collective desire to take action to improve African children’s access to justice. As the meeting came to a close, the moderator asked everyone in the room to put up their hands if they had learnt something they could put into practice to help children when they got home, and a forest of hands shot up. If we can harness all the goodwill, the energy and the expertise in the conference room, we will surely be able to bring access to justice for African children into line with international fundamental principles and standards on child rights.