Reforming the Child Justice System in Malawi
By Victor Chinyama
Perched on a hill overlooking a swathe of trees and bushes, the building looks obscure, its mundane appearance concealing the important work that goes on here every morning. The Blantyre Child Justice Court was established in 2005 to handle cases involving child offenders. The court is largely guided by an outdated piece of legislation, the 1969 Children and Young Persons Act, which according to UNICEF focuses more on punishing child offenders than on reforming and rehabilitating them. The law is set to be replaced by a new bill which will safeguard the best interests of the child throughout the justice system.
The Court is presided over by a dynamic magistrate Mrs. Esmie Tembenu, a passionate defender of child rights and a resolute believer in the rehabilitation of child offenders.
“When child offenders are brought before me, my first instinct is to look out for their best interests,” she says. “Sometimes they will have spent several nights in police custody without food and appear before me weak, hungry, and traumatised. I have to use my own money to buy them food before commencing proceedings.”
The children are never handcuffed and are interrogated in the presence of their parents, guardians or a probation officer. Trained paralegals offer advisory legal services, often enquiring on the socio-economic background of the child and producing a report for the court. The court looks at the severity of the offence and decides on one of two options: full trial or diversion.
The diversion option, funded and supported by UNICEF, entails channelling child offenders into programmes that enable them to develop a lifestyle free of crime. One such programme is run by the Chisomo Children’s Club in Blantyre.
“We provide psychosocial counselling and vocational skills training for all children referred to us by the Court,” says Moses Chione, a social worker at the Club and coordinator of the center’s Diversion Programme. “We have received five children this year, although two have since become truant.”
Magistrate Tembenu says reforming the child justice system has many challenges, including the absence of child friendly detention facilities, especially for girls, and high prevalence of HIV and poverty which are pushing children in ever increasing numbers into a life of crime.
“Eighty percent of the children I deal with have no parents or guardians,” she says. “These children are seeking survival when they commit crime. Some have had their property grabbed by relatives and have been left with utterly no means of survival.”
Mrs. Tembenu would like to see a canteen built and the Court assisted with small grants to provide food for the children.