|© UNICEF video|
|By supporting a more child-friendly rehabilitative approach to juvenile justice, UNICEF hopes that children will be able to break the cycle of crime.|
By Madeline Eisner
ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia, 28 September 2007 - In Ulaanbaatar, the bustling capital of Mongolia, five dishevelled children dart across the dusty pavement and pry open a heavy manhole cover. They slip into a narrow hole deep below the city – for now, this is where these children are living.
17-year-old Soyol shares this makeshift home with four other children, begging and occasionally washing cars to scrape together enough money for a daily meal of hot noodles. She comes from the ranks of the city’s most vulnerable children and their numbers continue to grow as the gulf between rich and poor in Mongolia widens.
No one knows exactly how many street children are living in Mongolia, but estimates in Ulaanbaatar range from as low as 300 to as high as one thousand.
Rehabilitation programmes urgently needed
“Poverty is the number one factor sending kids into the streets,” says UNICEF Representative Bertrand Desmoulins. “More often than not, they are victims of domestic violence, abandonment, broken and dysfunctional homes. Ultimately, they may come into conflict with the law, victims of a harsh justice system that is ill prepared to cope with this new reality.”
In custody, children are rarely treated any differently from adult offenders and as a result, they suffer emotional and physical trauma that feeds the cycle of crime. Children accused of minor crimes can be held in pre-trial detention centres for up to 18 months. There are currently no provisions for rehabilitation programmes.
UNICEF believes that legal reform which will amend the current system and protect children is an urgent priority. Equally important is ensuring that a wide range of social services are established to help prevent crime. As part of an innovative programme, UNICEF is supporting the local government to help divert juveniles from formal court procedures.
A novel approach
One of the first steps in this novel approach to child protection is the establishment of community-based committees which bring together representatives of the local government, police and judicial system, as well as psychologists, teachers and medical personnel. Together, they work to create an environment that is more conducive to assisting children who are in conflict with the law.
This group of professionals reviews individual cases, often mediating between victim and offender. They provide a wide range of social and medical services, as well as special education and life-skills training.
With UNICEF’s support, advocacy materials are being produced to reach out to the entire community to ensure both children and their parents know their rights. The pre-trial detention facility in the capital has also been improved and now has proper beds, natural light and blankets. In addition, educational classes will begin shortly.
“The aim is to build on the successes of these programmes by introducing both government and civil society to detention alternatives," says Mr. Desmoulins. "Ultimately, there is a firm hope that a child-friendly juvenile justice code will become a reality.”