Our juvenile justice work has two strands – securing justice for children who are victims of abuse, and supporting children who come into conflict with the law.
Supporting young victims
In many of the places where we work, children are at severe risk of sexual abuse and violence. In places like D.R. Congo rape has systematically been used as a weapon of war. In other countries, sexual abuse and defilement (having sex with an underage child) are commonplace in areas where the legal systems and societal norms aren’t there to prevent them.
It is usually, though not always, men who are responsible for these acts. In very patriarchal societies there are fewer cultural taboos about such deeds, and the shame and stigma is often attached to the young victim rather than the perpetrator.
The threat of being caught and prosecuted is rarely a deterrent to such crimes because those responsible for them are virtually never brought to justice. The abusers are often in a position of power or authority within their community – policemen, soldiers and, alarmingly often, teachers.
There are child protection laws in place in almost every country. But the lack of knowledge and enforcement of them in places like Congo or northern Uganda leaves children (and especially girls) very vulnerable to abuse.
Most young victims and their families cannot afford to hire lawyers or advocates to represent them in the criminal justice system. without professional and knowledgeable help, their claims are rarely taken seriously by the police or the courts.
Strong enforcement of these laws is a powerful way of protecting children’s rights. It also sends out a strong message to their community that abuse of children will not be tolerated or ignored and can will no longer happen with impunity.
Supporting young perpetrators of crimes, and those accused of them
This is a group of children overlooked by many funders and charities. For many potential donors, ‘young offenders’ don’t elicit much sympathy and there are plenty more deserving causes to support.
Juvenile justice is a complex issue though, and we’re committed to helping the most vulnerable and excluded children in the countries where we work. Some young people break the law out of economic necessity, others because they don’t know any better, or because they’ve known nothing but a life of hardship and violence themselves.
In most places where we work there isn’t a separate juvenile justice system in place. Children are treated as adults – they go through the same legal system and enter the same prisons.
These criminal justice systems are usually harsh and uncompromising, focusing on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Street children are often beaten or sexually abused by the police before they’re even locked up. Adult jails are usually dirty and overcrowded. Sexual abuse and exploitation of children is commonplace within them. There’s few places on earth where children are so acutely vulnerable and in need of protection.
We believe that every country should have a separate juvenile justice system that treats young people with compassion and focuses on rehabilitating and training them rather than treating them as criminals. This means making sure they’re safe and aren’t missing out on their education. Imprisonment should be a last resort, and other ‘punishments’ like community service or reparations should be preferred.
See our projects in Uganda for examples of our juvenile justice work in action.