Juvenile justice through the eyes of the children
By Chris Schuepp
GENEVA/BISHEK, 21 September 2012 - Children's voices took center stage in an international conference, "Violence against children in juvenile justice systems" in the Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan.
The conference is part of a project supported by the European Union in partnership with UNICEF. Ombudsman offices and human rights NGOs in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan and Ukraine are carrying out research on torture and ill-treatment of children in contact with the law. Researchers will present initial findings and discuss how to turn research into action.
UNICEF advocates for a constructive, tailored response for each child that comes into contact with the law. Depriving them of liberty – sending them to police custody or to jail – is the last resort. Reintegration in society is the ultimate aim. The work to enact these international standards in the eight countries will include supporting legislative and policy reforms, building institutional and professional capacity and developing alternatives to deprivation of liberty.
Children`s voices are very much part of the initiative with the launch of a series of video making workshops throughout 2012 held jointly with the OneMinutesJr network. They have so far met in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to develop story ideas for 60 second movies; film and edit them to demonstrate their personal views on the juvenile justice systems in their countries.
At the conference opening on 21 September, several of the children`s videos will be shown.
Up to 90 per cent of children in detention globally were arrested for non-violent minor crimes or offences
In the video workshops, UNICEF and partner NGOs brought together boys and girls who experienced the harsh life behind bars or dealt with law enforcement officers.
Many of them, like the 90 per cent of children in detention globally, were arrested for non-violent minor crimes or offences; engaging in minor thefts such as stealing mobile phones or vagrancy which many poor children commit simply to survive.
Their stories tell about how they started getting into trouble, how they were treated by the police, judges and penitentiary staff who are untrained to provide child-friendly services, the unbearable and lengthy legal processes they went through. Some suffered from violence, isolation while in detention. They struggle to leave their past behind.
In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Andrej tells us that he ran away from his home 20 kilometers from the capital when he was 9. He started living in the streets, stole food, was caught by the police for petty crimes and then did not have the courage to go home to his parents and talk to them.
“I wanted to, and a few times I made it until a couple of hundred meters from the gate, but then I always turned around,” he said.
Andrej is now 18 and together with his friends who do the camera work, he decides that it is time to go home. He has not seen his mother in nine years and he is tremendously nervous, but he promised us and himself to finally return to his house. The message in his film is in the title: Never be afraid to go home.
Andrej wants to tell other young people who are in conflict with the law: “Talk to your parents, talk to your friends, there are always people who can help you, but sometimes you just have to ask.”
Khurshed, 19, from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, has spent two-and-a-half years behind bars. He tells us in Isolation that he was kept in an isolation room for several days without proper access to water and a toilet, that he was physically and psychologically abused and that he still feels terrified when he thinks back to “the dark days”.
Aramais, 17, from Yerevan, Armenia, was accused of raping a girl two years ago. He pleaded innocent from the beginning, but the investigations took more than six months and the pressure on the then 15-year-old boy mounted and became almost unbearable. He was cleared of all charges in the end, but he is still feeling insecure and sometimes overly nervous and aggressive because of the psychological consequences of the pressure on him. His film Under pressure and the way he shows it is by filming a young boy screaming under water.
Hayastan, 17, from Armenia also reported a male perpetrator to the police, but due to the pressure from friends and family, she decided to withdraw her complaint. However, the police then turned their attention around and now she has to defend herself against charges of giving false witness. For a 17-year-old girl in her situation, this is surely hard to understand. Hayastan’s film deals with her problems in a very artistic way and is called I am not guilty.
The video messages produced by Andrej, Khurshed, Aramais, Hayastan and many other boys and girls help understand how young people are treated and want to be treated. Showing the films at the Bishkek international conference is one way of helping decision-makers looking at the situation from a different point of view.
A ministerial gathering will be convened to present the final recommendations in Brussels next year.