|© UNICEF DR Congo/2011/Walther|
|Boys fetch water for their families near the city of Lubumbashi, Katanga Province, in DR Congo. While 85 per cent of children are enrolled in primary schools, only one in three has access to secondary education.|
By Cornelia Walther
LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 3 March 2011 – For the first time in DR Congo, children in conflict with the law now have access to justice.
With UNICEF’s support, the country’s first Juvenile Justice Court has been operating since March 2010. Located in the city of Lubumbashi in Katanga, DR Congo’s richest province, it has heard more than 200 cases of child rights violations, including 108 cases of children in conflict with the law and 82 that involve child abuse.
The pilot project is seen as a stepping stone towards a justice system accessible to all the country’s children, the majority of whom come from deprived, marginalized communities and families.
Risk of abuse
Half of the population of DR Congo is under the age of 18. While 85 per cent of children are enrolled in primary schools, access to secondary education is a luxury only one in three youngsters can afford.
Nearly 60 per cent of people in DR Congo are threatened by food insecurity and live on less than $1.25 a day. As a result, Congolese children often come into conflict with the law due to theft, vagrancy or begging.
Once they do, they are at risk of abuse at every stage of the judicial process – from verbal, physical and sexual mistreatment to torture. Children are frequently held alongside adults in overcrowded prisons, increasing their exposure to criminal influence and violence, and long-term physical and psychological damage.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by DR Congo in 1990, requires that the “best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” under all circumstances. UNICEF is working to help enshrine these provisions across the country.
Not only has the Juvenile Justice Court been set up in Katanga Province, but new procedures to provide children with protection once they come in contact with the law have also been agreed.
Children are provided with trained defence lawyers, thanks to a partnership with the Lubumbashi Bar Association. Qualified social workers also accompany children throughout the judicial process, both in and away from the courtroom.
|© UNICEF DR Congo/2011/Walther|
|Florent (not his real name), 14, speaks with his social worker, Amos Tshimanga, in Lubumbashi, Katanga Province, DR Congo. Social workers in the province accompany children throughout the judicial process.|
They investigate a child’s background and circumstances in order to inform the judge’s decision, as well as identify solutions such as reintegrating the children back to their own families, a host family or a transition centre.
‘Brought to justice’
Florent (not his real name), 14, has benefited from the new procedures. For the last two years he has sold eggs in the streets to pay his school fees, but he recently suffered at the hands of a customer to whom he lent money so she could buy eggs from him.
“In the evening, when I went to her place to collect my money, she said she wouldn’t pay until I had sex with her,” he says. “When I refused, she forced me.”
Florent reported the woman to the police. “Thanks to the social worker who stayed by my side from the beginning, she was brought to justice,” he says.
His social worker, Amos Tshimanga, says Florent was fortunate to be living under the new justice system in Katanga province. “Somewhere else he would have neither seen a judge, nor been placed in social centre,” Mr. Tshimanga says. “He would have been left to himself and the lady’s crime wiped out with a bribe to the police.”
And despite his success in court, Florent was still stigmatized. Following the incident, the family he had been staying with rejected him, refusing to acknowledge that he was a victim, not a perpetrator. Tshimanga found him a children’s home as an interim solution.
“Finally I can go to school and even get regular meals every day,” says Florent. “One day when I have finished my studies, I want to take care of orphans myself.”
After three months of mediation between Mr. Tshimanga and Florent’s family, he has now returned home, and back to selling eggs.
It is hoped that extending the new child justice model to the rest of DR Congo will eventually herald a change in the general perception in the status of children like Florent from ‘subjects’ to rights-holders in the Congolese Constitution.