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Why African countries must make their justice systems more child friendly

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Written by Hileleule Getachew

On 16 June in 1976, Soweto students marched in protest against Apartheid inspired non-inclusive education system and were met with a brutal police response. The event made a lasting mark, and the African Union decided to commemorate the courage of these children by instituting the “Day of the African Child” in 1991 in their honour. Since then, the day has been celebrated annually by African countries and people everywhere in the world.

The Day of African Child 2020 is celebrated with the theme of “Access to a Child-Friendly Justice System in Africa.” Making African justice systems child friendly is indeed a key priority for ensuring the fulfilment of children’s rights since children come into contact with the justice system in many different ways. When faced with the justice system, children are thrown into an intimidating adult world that they might not understand. Adapting the system of justice to their needs is necessary so their rights and their unique vulnerabilities are understood and respected.

As a lawyer, I am aware of an old legal saying: “The trial itself is a punishment.” Whether you are an accused, a witness, or an injured person, being party to a trial is a stress that in many cases can equate to the level of punishment. This principle is particularly true for children whose emotions are tender and susceptible. We need a system that understands and respects children’s rights and their unique vulnerability.

There have been considerable works concerning children in justice systems. Despite these efforts, children remain ill-protected, not just in the nature of justice proceedings in which they may be implicated, but about the very existence and scope of their rights and how to enforce them. Despite the unequivocal acknowledgement that a children’s rights-based approach to justice is imperative, African countries have done surprisingly little to scrutinise the availability and quality of laws and policies affecting children in justice systems. This calls for serious introspection and commitment towards addressing the numerous challenges facing the implementation of such policies across the continent.

As a legal practitioner, I believe the first step is a dialogue among children, policymakers, children’s rights organisations, and the academics on the major challenges in implementing child-friendly justice systems for all children in Africa. There have been various improvements in this regard. The work of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child is one example for the better protection of children’s rights in Africa.

However, in the end, just like the brave heroes and heroines during the Soweto student uprising, we the children of Africa need to be the spark that lights the fire.

Day of the African child 2020 was virtually commemorated online on June 16, 13:00-16:00 EAT, and live-streamed on Facebook. You can learn more about children’s rights from the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) here.

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