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.

The year 2017 started with a UN announcement that 1.4 million children face imminent death from famine in Africa. Failure of food production due to drought and conflicts, combined with weak and limited national responses and capacities to address the crisis in countries such as Somalia, South Sudan and parts of Nigeria has resulted in millions of children suffering from malnutrition and facing famine. Countries in the horn of Africa are particularly vulnerable to drought and famine.


Such negative developments in the region disturb us all and remind us of the need to scale up our collective effort to reverse them. Studies are showing us the strong link between accountable-governance and occurrence of droughts which have heavy tolls on women and children. Droughts are not new to our region. The current droughts and the cost in the lives of children and women should be a turning point where we commit and resolve to move from fire-fighting to addressing their root causes. African governments, particularly in drought prone countries, need to tackle these situations that deeply affect the life and dignity of our people.


Our policies and actions need to promote zero-tolerance to avoidable famine, hunger and deprivations and government machineries should be tuned to realise them. National development initiatives must be responsive to the persistent poverty and increasing inequality. Investing in food production and putting in place mechanisms for fair distribution should be given utmost priority to ensure food sufficiency and access in the continent. Investments must also be made in physical infrastructure and service facilities to provide access to the most vulnerable groups of the population living in remote areas.


Child-sensitive social protection programmes have proven to be effective strategies to tackle vulnerabilities of children and their families and enhance their resilience to crisis and droughts. The Call for Action of our Sixth International Policy Conference on the African Child (IPC), under the theme “Social Protection in Africa: Making it Work for Children”, urged African governments, together with partners, to commit to designing and implementing appropriate national social protection programmes that put children and families at the center of the process and help reduce shocks and vulnerabilities in time of crisis and droughts.


As African civil society organisations, we must continue to engage and support governments in building the knowledge base, identifying good practices and in developing appropriate strategies to combat vulnerabilities and insecurities. We must identify policy gaps that hinder efforts aimed at addressing the root causes of vulnerability, particularly among those who suffer most.


The suffering of children must stop in Africa. Policy gaps must be addressed, implementation and enforcement of existing policies and programmes must improve. Most importantly, we should strengthen our advocacy to promote accountable-governance that advances this agenda.


Mr Theophane Nikyema
Executive Director

Mr Theophane Nikyema

Dr. Assefa Bequele
Executive Director-ACPF

Dear friends and colleagues,

Warm greetings.


It is with mixed feelings that I accepted to return to ACPF as Executive Director.   On the one hand, it pleases me to be back amongst the staff of ACPF and work towards our mission: “A More Child-friendly and Accountable Africa”.

On the other hand, this is a part of my career that I had left some five years ago for other colleagues to handle.  Of course, I was always available to assist ACPF colleagues and the Board with my views and opinions on the strategic direction of the organisation. 

But I stayed clear from the complexities of managing the organisation. I return to this prestigious institution, at the request of the Board, to lead the staff of ACPF for an interim period.  My responsibility: to achieve our promised deliverables as stated in our strategic framework 2016-2020 and prepare the organisation for yet another decade of success.

As we celebrate our fifteenth year, this year, I would like to say thank you to all our partners for their trust in our work and their unwavering support for our efforts. I count on you, our partners, to continue your generous assistance to ACPF.

Going forward, I am confident in our future. We have an inspiring cause and mission. We are quite unique in the region in what we do and how we do it. We are committed universalists but we also insist on an understanding of the African context within which children and families live and function, and that gives us our identity and our voice. We have a committed staff. Indeed, although ACPF is a lean organisation, its work on child rights and child wellbeing in Africa is amongst the best of its kind. Its contributions on a wide range of areas, for example, those on the child-friendliness of African governments, monitoring government performance, laws affecting children, law reform, violence against children, children with disability, child–headed households, child poverty, and child budgeting are both pioneering and influential in Africa.

But we can do more and better, and we will, thanks to our committed staff and, hopefully, with the continued and increased solidarity from our partners both here in Africa and beyond.