Childhood behind locked doors
JESSORE, Bangladesh: About 20 or 30 villagers have gathered around Minhaz, 15, as he and his mother discuss his plan for the future. Men wearing lungis (traditional sarongs) and women balancing babies on their hips provide their point of view.
Minhaz’s lively family life is a world away from Jessore’s Child Development Centre (CDC), where he lived until he was released back into his village two weeks ago. “The centre was no good. This place is much better. I can’t live without my uncles and brothers and the rest of my family. I missed them,” he says.
The Centre is one of only three juvenile justice centres in Bangladesh, however it also functions as a child protection centre. This means that in addition to detaining children who are convicted of a crime, it also holds children who have no family, children who are referred by their parents for being ‘uncontrollable’ and children who need witness protection.
Minhaz was in the Centre because he was accused of assisting with child trafficking, even though he is only a child himself. He had inadequate legal representation and was initially refused bail. While he served out a two year sentence, he lost touch with his family. When his case was finally closed he had nowhere to go and remained in the Centre for another year.
UNICEF’s Juvenile Justice Diversion pilot project is working to reintegrate children like Minhaz back into the community. The project is based on the belief that many of these children do not belong in the Centre, and that staying there may do more harm than good. This principle of ‘diversion’ is the cornerstone of international juvenile justice standards, but is not widely recognised by Bengali legislation and legal practice.
The project prioritises children who have no parents or guardians, children without a lawyer, and children whose cases have been pending for extended periods. The process begins with the creation of an individual case management plan for each child. Often the omission of simple details or documents, such as a police report, can leave a child stuck in the centre for years. A multi-disciplinary case management team has been established including members of the police, the Bar Council, local government and UNICEF’s partner NGOs, Save the Children UK and Jagrata Jubo Shangha (JJS).
In Minhaz’s case, the project provided him with a legal-aid lawyer, and assisted him to reconnect with his family. He was provided with a small lump sum to kick-start his new life, which he spent on the rickshaw van. The project also has the scope to provide money for guardians’ income-generating activities so they can support their child.
Probation officer Rezaul Haque visits Minhaz and other reintegrated children at least once a month. As the villagers look on, Rezaul warns the teenager to stay on his best behaviour. “You are out of the centre, but you are not free from the law. You have to answer to the law, to your family, and to me. It is up to you to maintain your freedom,” he says.
Minhaz’s family and neighbours seem excited to have him back, but sadly, in many cases, parents are unwilling or unable to fulfil their parental duties. Abdul Haque, assistant director of the CDC, says that most of the approximately 100 boys in his centre are from poor or broken families. “Sometimes, when their case finishes, the boy is free and we provide the information to their families, but the family doesn’t come. The mother may think that the boy is a burden for her, and is living well in the CDC. So where do they go? They are free but they have no home to go to.”
For children who do not know where their family are, or for orphans, the project involves detective work to find suitable guardians. Several techniques are used, such as placing newspaper advertisements, going door-to-door in villages, and conducting in-depth interviews with the child to establish any details they can recall about their homes. UNICEF helps train detention centre staff on in-depth interview techniques and pays for the boys’ transport home when they are released. These small changes can mean the difference between a child remaining in the centre, or reintegrating with his family.
Since the diversion pilot project began in June, 12 children have been reintegrated with their families, and 23 other children are having their cases reviewed. There are plans to introduce the project in Bangladesh’s other two Child Development Centres in 2010.
As for Minhaz, he and his mother agree that he will pull the rickshaw van in the afternoon, and work in the family farm every morning. “I’m determined to be a good boy, to work hard and help my family,” he says.
Names have been changed to protect the identities of the children.