Children’s centres provide an alternative approach to juvenile justice in Tajikistan
By Ruth Ansah Ayisi
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan, 9 July 2007 – Just as our interview is about to begin, the telephone rings and with it vanishes the charming smile that lights up Abdul’s face. He senses that his mother is on the other end of the line.
Although trying to look composed, the 13-year-old twists his fingers nervously as he listens to one side of the conversation. The man talking to his mother is Todzhidin Dzhalolov, the coordinator of the drop-in centre for children like Abdul (not his real name).
As soon as the conversation ends, Abdul looks confident once more and begins to talk with enthusiasm.
“I’m entering a drawing competition,” he says. “I don’t mind if I don’t win. I don’t want a prize. I just love drawing. I’m drawing a picture about my life on the streets. I never had the chance to draw before.”
Tailored for each child
When Abdul leaves, Mr. Dzhalolov explains how the boy came to the drop-in centre, which is run by a local non-governmental organization, Nasli Navras, here in the capital of Tajikistan.
The centre provides a range of activities for children in the local community as part of Tajikistan’s Juvenile Justice Alternatives Project. It is also the first facility of its kind in the country to provide an alternative to detention or institutionalization for children who run into trouble with the law.
“His mother brought him here after he had been expelled from school for petty theft,” Mr. Dzhalolov says, referring to Abdul. “He is full of energy and wants to please. He is also a talented pianist, but he is difficult to control.”
A medical examination upon his arrival at the centre revealed the grim reality of Abdul’s life, notes Mr. Dzhalolov. “We found that his body was covered with burns,” he says. “At first he wouldn’t tell us what they were. He said it was an accident. Then when we persisted, we learnt his mother burnt him with an iron as a punishment.”
Abdul was assessed at the centre by a project team trained with support from UNICEF. Like the other youths at the centre, he helped to design his own programme, which includes recreational activities and counselling. His mother also now receives counselling services.
Model for alternative projects
If Abdul lived in a different part of the country or had committed the theft a few years ago, it is likely that the Commission on Minors would have sent him to a closed detention centre.
The situation caught the attention of a National Expert Group on Juvenile Justice, established in 2003 by the National Commission on Child Protection. The group found that children appearing before the Commission on Minors and the Courts for committing small offences were often sent to closed detention because there were no effective alternatives.
Based on the group’s recommendations, the Children’s Legal Centre, a UK-based NGO, in collaboration with UNICEF and the government, developed the model for the Juvenile Justice Alternatives Project.
“We need to replicate such projects systematically throughout the country,” says UNICEF Social Policy Reform and Child Protection Officer Furkat Lutfulloev. “The centres have clearly demonstrated their advantages compared to closed institutions. Apart from respecting the rights of the child, they are also managing to reform the child.”
Of the 120 children assisted since the alternatives project began, only 4 have re-offended – an extremely low number by international standards – according to Mr. Lutfulloev.
Helping families to cope
The poorest of the former Soviet republics, Tajikistan suffered a five-year civil war and economic decline in the 1990s. The country’s struggle has left children particularly vulnerable. An increasing number of them drop out of school, take to the streets or have been abandoned and abused by their families, who in turn are struggling to cope.
Jamshed (not his real name), 14, is one of the youths who have completed the reform programme in Fridarvsi District. He is confident, well dressed and, these days, smiles often. Asked why he attended the centre, Jamshed’s memory is selective. “I had to drop out of school when my mother left for Russia,” he replies.
Zarina Alimshoeva, centre coordinator in Fridarvsi, tells the full story. When Jamshed’s mother left, she explains, he became a gang leader and the “biggest fuel thief in the area.”
But she adds fondly: “Jamshed has done really well since he came to the centre. He returns here just to visit us now because he enjoys it so much here. He is at school and lives with his mother now.”