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Crime and punishment: Improving juvenile justice in Mongolia

© UNICEF/2007/Holmes
A street child emerges from the ground after lifting the heavy steel lids on manholes that cover the pipes that carry city heating water. Street kids use these holes as homes during the freezing winter.

By Madeline Eisner

June 2007 - It’s late afternoon in the bustling capital of Mongolia, when five disheveled children dart across the dusty pavement in the street, pry open a heavy iron manhole cover and slip adeptly into the narrow hole, deep into the city’s underbelly.

This manhole – pitch dark, grimy and warmed only by hot water pipes - is where the children call home.  No one knows exactly their numbers, but police estimate that street children living in such circumstances range from 300 to close to a thousand in Ulaanbaatar. 

“Since the sudden death of my father there was just never enough money for food or clothes for the family’, says 17-year old Soyol, a young girl who has lived in the manholes for nearly four years.

With four other children who share the same manhole, Soyol survives by begging on the street and occasionally washing cars to scrape together enough money for a daily meal of hot noodles.  Makeshift bedding of flattened cardboard boxes and a couple of stained sleeping bags shield the children from the sub-zero temperatures.

Like so many children who live in these desperate situations, Soyol comes from the ranks of the city’s most vulnerable, and their numbers continue to grow as the gulf between rich and poor widens in Mongolia.  

“Poverty is the number one push factor sending kids into the streets.  More often than not, they are victims of domestic violence, abandonment, broken and dysfunctional homes, says UNICEF Representative Bertrand Desmoulins.

“It’s not uncommon to see many of these children turn to petty crime to survive.  Ultimately they may come into conflict with the law, victims of a harsh justice system that is ill prepared to cope with this new reality”, he says.

In custody, children are treated little differently from adult offenders, and suffer emotional and physical trauma that feeds the cycle of crime, with children often returning to petty crime after incarceration.

Legal reform to amend the current system in order to protect children is an urgent priority, says UNICEF.  Equally important, ensuring a wide range of social services are established to prevent juvenile crime in the first place is crucial.

Nearly 1500 kilometers from the capital in western Mongolia, in one of the poorest areas of the remote countryside, a young boy peers from behind iron bars in a pre-trial detention centre where he has been awaiting trial for petty theft for nearly 8 months. 

Fifteen year-old Munkh admits he and his friends committed the theft in order to scratch together enough money to play computer games at the local store. 

“All I want is to be released, go back home and make enough money to help my family survive”, he says.

Munkh’s story is symbolic of so many other children in similar circumstances.   He and his five siblings were abandoned by their mother.  His father, an alcoholic, works only intermittently in the neighborhood doing odd jobs leaving the entire family to survive on the state’s child welfare funding, a conditional cash transfer, amounting to some US $40 per month.

Currently, children accused of minor crimes can be held in pre-trial detention centres for up to 18 months, depending on the particular circumstance.  Although the law provides for some alternatives, such as probation for those whose families who can afford bail money, there are currently no provisions for either diversion or rehabilitation programmes.

In an innovative programme to influence change, UNICEF is supporting local government in organizing novel approaches to divert juveniles from the formal court system and criminal procedure.

One of the first steps is the establishment of community-based committees, which bring together representatives of local government, police and the judicial system, as well as psychologists, teachers, and medical personnel.

Together they work to create an environment that is more conducive to children in conflict with the law, by reviewing individual cases, mediating between victim and offender, and providing a wide range of social and medical services, as well as special education and life-skills training.

Programmes are underway to sensitize police and other law enforcement personnel in order to equip them with the capacity to conduct child-friendly procedures.  With UNICEF support, advocacy materials are being produced to reach out to the entire community to ensure both children and their parents know their rights.  The pre-trial detention facility in the capital has been improved – with proper beds, natural light, blankets to shield from the cold; education classes will begin shortly.

“The aim is to build on the successes of these programmes by introducing both government and civil society to detention alternatives, says UNICEF’s Desmoulins.  Ultimately, there is a firm hope that a child-friendly juvenile justice code will become a reality.”



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