Innovative Programme Rehabilitates Child Offenders in Malawi
Bewildered and barely able to speak, sixteen year-old Anne Chinula stood trembling in the dock, accused under Malawi’s penal code of assaulting a police officer and facing seven years in jail ‘with hard labour’.
Anne had been locked up in a filthy cell together with adult offenders for her crimes, which included gambling and the eventual assault. The police had had her on their watch for sometime, marking her out for brawling and generally unruly behaviour.
A hushed silence fell over the courtroom as the presiding magistrate walked in and read out the charges. Luckily for Anne, Mrs. Esmie Tembenu was no ordinary magistrate. She is a passionate defender of children’s rights and a proponent of alternative justice systems for child offenders.
Anne couldn’t have wished for a better outcome. Rather than use the penal code, the magistrate opted for the 1969 Children and Young Person’s Act, which does not allow for the conviction, sentencing and imprisonment of children.
Rather than take a plea, Anne was asked to acknowledge her wrong and ask for forgiveness from the police officer, which she did. And instead of sending her to prison, Mrs. Tembenu ordered that Anne be placed in a UNICEF supported diversion programme where she would be taught psychosocial lifeskills and acquire a vocational trade.
Anne was enrolled in a diversion programme administered by the Chisomo Children’s Club, a non-governmental organization whose programmes are intended to divert children from prison and assists them to learn a new way of life. Chisomo runs a center where children are counselled and taught life and vocational skills once a week.
“I have learnt about how to live peacefully with others, to respect people regardless of their status and to not be violent and offensive,” says Anne.
She is learning how to knit and hopes to get a job to support her mother and her 11 month old baby. Her father died in 2002 and Anne was forced of drop out of Standard 5 for lack of financial support.