The legendary editor of the Guardian newspaper CP Scott famously declared in 1921 that “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” Unfortunately, when it comes to hard evidence on how many children are locked up in prisons, detention centres, migrant and refugee camps, rehabilitation units or other institutions across the world, the facts are more scarce than sacred. There is no single source of accurate data for these figures and estimates vary widely between 15,000 and 28,000 in Africa alone, but common sense dictates that the numbers are likely to be worse than even the highest approximations. The UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty – due to be presented to the general assembly this September – aims to address this data gap. 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.
A lack of statistics makes it hard to identify any country or region in the continent as being worse than another. The recent conference on Access to Justice for Children in Africa, convened by the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) and its partners in Addis Ababa, made it clear that young people are poorly served by the justice systems meant to protect them. Despite some progress in recent years, the conference heard how groups such as children with disabilities, victims of trafficking, sexual abuse and violence, orphans, refugees and migrants are routinely discriminated against: they are denied access to justice, to adequate legal representation and to a fair trial. ACPF held the gathering to call on governments and international agencies, research institutions and experts as well as the media to highlight the injustices children are facing in judicial systems. Participants, numbering more than 200, committed themselves to give a face and a voice to these children and making access to justice a reality for all young people on the continent. Their call to action pulls no punches, noting that children remain predominantly invisible in the justice systems in Africa, that traditional, customary or religious justice remains largely unregulated and renders 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 – no one can shirk their responsibility. But calling for action is one thing, getting it is another. African countries must make greater strides towards improved access to justice for children. This will be marked by, among other things, law and policy reform that recognise the rights of children in the justice system, as well as growth in services that support these laws. Many African countries now have laws and standards to protect children in the justice system, some have child courts and dedicated police units, but true progress requires their systematic implementation. Some countries such as Uganda report a significant drop in the number of children being detained. Elsewhere, trials of new technology such as “virtual courts” lessen the stress of children having to appear in person. But progress is painfully slow, and all the while another generation of children faces discrimination and ill-treatment at the hands of the systems 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.”
Credit: Graca Machel for The Guardian, 18 June 2018.