Investing in children for justice

Wahida Banu | Published: November 09, 2018 22:13:56

Students running for cover during a clash: Children often fall victim to violence and other types of harassment without any remedy

Generally the situation of children in conflict with the law, with special focus on girls is because of relative powerlessness of poor communities. Socially excluded children regularly come into conflict with the law in Bangladesh, their first point of contact being the police. A lack of procedure and protocol for dealing with children in conflict with the law means that their treatment is arbitrary and unpredictable. Police officers are ill equipped to work in a child rights context, according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and other international standards on juvenile justice due to their lack of knowledge on legal framework. The Children Act /law does not provide adequate provisions but we are waiting for the amended final version of Child Act-2013 which will appropriately provide adequate provisions.

Children are detained at police stations in the absence of suitable alternatives, or are referred to adult prisons. In both places, children are exposed to violence and abuse. Police officers are prone to raising the age of a child, accused of infringing the penal law, in order to be able to treat him/her as an adult, a simpler bureaucratic procedure. Consequently they are referred to adult prisons. Magistrates are prone to accepting the police assumption of a child's age, and to refer the child to a court as an adult, hence bypassing the Juvenile Courts.

Both boys and girls are subject to sexual abuse in police stations, though girls are singled out. They have no scope to complain, as there is no framework for lodging complaints or responding to them. Child rights cannot be accessed. Many children do not receive legal representation and no systematic attempt is made to contact the families of poor children. Inadequate training, poor governance and a paucity of options at the police station mean that the needs and rights of children in conflict with the law are inadequately provided for or protected.

European Union has been supporting Aparajeyo-Bangladesh as the lead agency for the interventions in improving the institutional responses to the children in conflict and contact with the law in collaboration with its five local partner organisations, i.e. JJS-Khulna, SCOP-Barisal, PASS-Rangpur and US-Jamalpur in Bangladesh. Aparajeyo has been covering Dhaka, Mymensingh, Kurigram, and specifically three Unions of Kurigram. This project has been implemented since January 2016 before being phased out by the end of December 2019. This has an existing informal relationship with 12 police stations and has established a child welfare desk in each police station in all these working areas. It has formed 11 child welfare committees consisting of professionals from these localities. Through a diversion process we have rehabilitated over one thousand children and over 300 children's court cases are being handled by a panel of lawyers who are representing children in the court on a voluntary basis. This works well, to a point, but is subject to individual good will and arbitrary decision-making. Relations have not been institutionalised and thus individual behaviour on the part of police officers cannot be held to account nor guided by protocols or the demands of best practice. Equally, police/NGO relations are based on informal relationship. 

Furthermore, lawyers do not have a clear perception about the Child Act-2013 (still in the amendment stage), also the previous Children Act- 1974, the UNCRC and other international standards regarding juvenile justice. As a result they cannot differentiate cases of children in need of care and protection from those charged under criminal cases. Furthermore, they cannot give adequate legal representation because they are unaware of the applicable standards. Also due to lack of knowledge of crime reporters most children are highlighted as criminals in their various press reports thus creating a negative image of children who come into conflict with the law.

The legal system of Bangladesh is often corrupt and violent in addition to being extremely slow particularly in the event of women and girls. A lack of basic necessities for women and girls in protective custody is overlooked. Women and girls are prone to suffering abuse from the law enforcement officers at all stages of the judiciary cycle -- pre-trial, on-trial and post-trial. Girls face abusive behaviour at the police station, ranging from verbal abuse, beating, bullying and intimidation to inadequate food, being forced to run personal errands and rape. There is evidence from girls with whom Aparajeyo works that girls are picked up from the streets on false allegations so that the police can abuse them. There is a lack of commitment and coordination among the relevant institutions, such as the police and judiciary. Cases of physical, psychological and sexual abuse within state institutions reflect the social and cultural beliefs, values and practices of a society that tends to contribute to further victimisation of women and children - notably girls - when they come into contact with the legal system.

The right to legal representation in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) provides the starting point for any discussion about the proper administration of juvenile justice. Adopted in 1990, the CRC provides a wide-ranging framework for protection of children's rights. It states that parties shall ensure: (a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age; (b) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time; (c) Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child's best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances; (d) Every child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance, as well as the right to challenge the legality of being deprived of his or her liberty before a court or other competent, independent and impartial authority, and to a prompt decision on any such action.

Building social awareness, investing in children for justice and strong implementation of policies and laws and strong political commitment are the urgent requirements to protect our children from getting involved in any antisocial activities. It is also very important to create an environment to improve their lives and make these children educated, skilled and productive citizens of the country.

Wahida Banu is Executive Director of Aparajeyo-Bangladesh.

 info @ aparajeyo.org

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