|Souley stands in front of his makeshift home in Niamey, Niger’s capital.|
By Guy Degen
NIAMEY, Niger, 2 July 2008 – Souley, 16, lives on the streets of Niamey, Niger's capital. He spends most days at the local Educative, Preventive and Judiciary Service (SEJUP) centre, where he is learning skills that will enable him to earn a living and stay out of trouble.
Today, he is at the centre diligently carving a buffalo-horn letter opener that he will later sell to buy food.
Set up by the government's national juvenile justice programme with UNICEF’s support, such centres provide a range of social and support services for vulnerable children and adolescents who have already run afoul of the law.
The centres offer homeless youths the opportunity to learn basic vocational and literacy skills, while also providing Niger's judicial system with an alternative to incarcerating minors.
Learning new skills for a living
At night, Souley shares a makeshift hut of reeds and cardboard with other street youths in a desperately poor neighbourhood near Niamey's airport.
He explains that his parents are farmers in the country, but he thinks the city offers a chance at a better life. By selling bone and leather handicrafts produced at the SEJUP centre, Souley is able to buy food instead of begging for it.
|Youths produce handicrafts at the SEJUP centre, learning skills that will enable them to earn a living.|
Helping children in prison
Beyond the SEJUP initiative, UNICEF has enabled Niamey's main prison to offer juvenile offenders basic educational services, as well as music and gardening instruction. And it has helped prison authorities create separate children’s wards to protect imprisoned children from potentially abusive adult inmates.
UNICEF is working closely with Niger's judicial system and law enforcement bodies to protect child rights. Eight juvenile courts were established recently, and court-appointed lawyers have been trained to represent children. New laws, developed with guidance from UNICEF, now allow juvenile courts to offer community service as an alternative to prison sentences.
As a result of these activities, the number of children incarcerated in Niger has decreased significantly.
“Incarceration stigmatizes a child,” says the head of UNICEF’s Child Protection Unit in Niamey, Jean Lieby. “If a child has access to an alternative justice system, to reintegration activities such as apprenticeships, he has a better chance of being integrated back into society and having a normal life.”