Mali: huge efforts to keep children out of prison
Bamako, Mali, 23 October 2009 - "When he left home, he had nothing; he had not eaten, he had bad clothes. But these people (B.I.C.E.) took Alasan as their child. When he came back home he had been fed well, he looked healthy, and he had a bag full of clothes. If other people open their arms to my son, and see him as their own child, why shouldn’t I care for him more than I have done in the past?"
When Fadimata Tall’s son vanished from home, she prayed for his return. "I relied on God’s will."
Thirteen-year-old Alasan had disappeared for more than two months.
His mother feared the worst, because she had already lost three of her children, one to measles and the other to malaria, and her daughter died during childbirth.
Yet when Alasan returned home safely, it turned out to be a mixed blessing. He had been arrested. "I told him I was so happy to have him back, that he should wash, and I gave him food. I tried to ask why he left, but he didn’t want to listen."
They sit together in their stark one-roomed mud home, which has just a few clothes heaped in a corner, some rusty cooking pots and some old plastic chairs.
School not prison
Alasan could so easily have ended up in prison if it had not been for a programme run by the Bureau International Catholique de l’Enfance (B.I.C.E.) Mali, supported by UNICEF, to try to find alternative solutions for children who break the law.
Since 2008, they have managed to steer 14 children away from prison, put them back into school or taught them a trade along with literacy classes, as well as reunite them with their families.
It is difficult to estimate how many children are in prison. Many do not even have birth certificates to determine their age.
UNICEF has supported partners to help children in prison, which it advocates should only be used as a last resort.
There has been progress. Most children who are imprisoned are now kept separate from adults.
UNICEF has also provided mattresses, mosquito nets, and daily literacy classes for children in prison in the eastern region of Mopti, where Alasan’s family live.
On one visit there are 11 boys under 18 years old in prison, the majority of them for petty thefts that did not involve violence.
They are sitting outside in a courtyard attentively listening to a teacher writing on a blackboard.
The adult prisoners are held in a courtyard next door. Most of the boys come from poor homes, says the lieutenant, calmly standing watch.
Keeping children out of prison
UNICEF has also supported children’s rights training programme for prison wardens, police officers and others in the justice system.
In Mopti, the prison officers work in close contact with the NGO, B.I.C.E. The counsellors from this NGO visit the children, and try to secure their release. An early trial remains a challenge.
One of the boys, aged 17, who lost his father to asthma, says he has been in the prison for five months and still has not been sentenced for allegedly stealing or receiving a stolen bike.
"It’s my first time in prison. I was in the seventh grade of school. I feel depressed as I don’t know when I will get out of here."
Apart from denying the children their basic rights, the prison does little to rehabilitate them.
There is evidence that most children re-offend and while in prison learn more about criminal behaviour. "If Alasan had gone to prison for five months, he would have turned out much worse," says Emmanuel Somboro, a counsellor for B.I.C.E.
The story of Alasan
It was the police who contacted B.I.C.E. when Alasan was brought to the station by a woman from whom he had stole a bag of clothes, which he sold cheaply for a total of 2,000 FCFA (about 4 US dollars).
Alasan no longer had the money and his mother could not pay her back. She struggles to support four children as well as her orphaned grandchild by selling mangoes.
Her husband has retired from carpentry and he has a second wife to also look after.
Fortunately the woman who was robbed accepted some clothes belonging to Alasan’s family.
Alasan admits that it was not the first time he stole. "I used to pickpocket and as I was so small, nobody suspected me."
He explained that he was part of a juvenile group of boys working for a man of about 40 years old, who would receive their "earnings" at the end of the day.
It took two months at the centre before Alasan was ready to return home. "He had been living rough on the streets for months, sniffing glue and drinking alcohol," says Somboro who spent long hours counselling Alasan.
"When he first came to the centre, he was rebellious. He didn’t accept any advice and was always fighting."
It was not easy to find an occupation for him. Efforts to return Alasan to school failed. Mention school to Alasan, and he clicks his tongues at the top of his mouth.
"I don’t like school; there is no money in it." He preferred to learn tailoring, but explains Somboro, he had no patience and "became frustrated", so did his teacher. Now he shines shoes to earn money.
His mother looks emotional as she talks about how Alasan has changed.
"When he left home, he had nothing; he had not eaten, he had bad clothes. But these people (B.I.C.E.) took Alasan as their child. When he came back home he had been fed well, he looked healthy, and he had a bag full of clothes. If other people open their arms to my son, and see him as their own child, why shouldn’t I care for him more than I have done in the past?"
She smiles fondly at Alasan, who at first looks defiant, but soon softens and beams back at his mother, showing off a charming, lovable smile.
By Ismael Maiga