The long road towards juvenile justice in Papua New Guinea
WEWAK, Papua New Guinea
Fifteen-year-old Michael*, an orphan who has never had the chance to go to school, is serving a two-year custodial sentence in Wewak Boys Town, a juvenile detention centre in Papua New Guinea run by the Sacred Hearts Brothers.
During his arrest for shoplifting Michael was shot in the leg by a police officer. “On the way to the police station, while I lay wounded from the gunshot, they beat me with their weapons and with broken bottles,” says Michael, who points to a scar on his face, near his eye. “They cut me here. I thought they were going to kill me.”
He was held in detention for three months and never received any medical attention. “The other boys held in the cells helped me,” he says. “I was bleeding a lot. They cleaned my wounds. Then two strong boys held me down. They used a knife and fork to take out the bullet from my leg while I screamed.”
Lack of prospects fosters youth crime
Michael’s journey through poverty, lack of education and frustration is common in Papua New Guinea, where an increasing number of young people are forced to drop out of school – mainly because of high school fees – and become alienated by the lack of prospects in their lives.
“Crime is a growing problem in the capital and other parts of the country – especially violent crime – with children and young people committing around 10 per cent of offences,” says Christina Anawe, the sole senior magistrate for the East Sepik province. “Criminal liability begins from the age of seven years old.”
As many as 40 per cent of young people, and particularly boys between the ages of 14 to 18, are at risk of becoming in conflict with the law. Ms. Anawe blames the increase in child offenders on poverty, migration to urban areas and the breakdown of the family unit. “Most of these children come from the urban settlements, have little education and are from broken homes.”
Many of the young people who are arrested for petty crimes are denied their fundamental rights. “When they get arrested, they are often held in detention for long periods without access to a child probation officer and have no contact with their family,” says Bruce Grant, a UNICEF Child Protection Officer. “They can suffer severe beatings and do not get access to health services.”
Michael has been detained in Boys Town for almost a year. Detention centres such as this one are run in keeping with international standards for the protection of juveniles deprived of their liberties. They are an alternative to prison and are recognised and sometimes partly funded by the government.
Brother Simon Manuk says he has seen big changes in Michael. “When he first came here, he was very shy and homesick,” Manuk says. “He wouldn’t do anything you asked. He would just stay in the dormitory.” Now Michael says that he feels at home in Boys Town, and he welcomes the chance he has been given to go to school.
Protecting vulnerable children
All the boys currently held at Boys Town say they were beaten by the police. While the situation of juvenile detainees is improving, many feel that change is not happening fast enough. Children accused of or suspected of committing a crime are at greatest risk of having their fundamental rights violated. For this reason UNICEF has adopted the promotion and protection of the rights of these children as one of its global child protection priorities.
A ‘Juvenile Justice Working Group’ (JJWG) supported by UNICEF and consisting of 21 key government and community agencies is working towards establishing a comprehensive juvenile justice system, based on restorative justice, Melanesian traditions and contemporary juvenile justice practices.
After Parliament passed the child-friendly Juvenile Courts Act in 1991 it took 11 years for it to finally be adopted, in January 2003. The enactment of the legislation into law at this time reflected the commitment of the Government of Papua New Guinea to juvenile justice and its confidence in the ability of the JJWG to effectively coordinate the implementation of the reform process.
Juveniles are now being diverted away from the formal justice system. A comprehensive policy has been put in place, which includes having a specially trained police juvenile officer on duty in every police shift at all stations. The Australian Government Overseas Aid Programme has funded new juvenile reception centres at key police stations for juveniles and juvenile court officers to provide a meeting space for families and welfare officers.
This reform process is a major undertaking for the justice sector and has lead to significant changes in the way children and young people are treated when they come into contact with the law. One of the major UNICEF interventions is to support the JJWG to address the problem of police brutality so that children like Michael will be protected.
“The main challenge now,” says Paija Peyape, a corrections officer who is working with UNICEF on the juvenile justice system, “is to educate people at all levels – such as community leaders, parents and police officers – about how to treat young offenders. This has already started.”
*Not his real name