Child Protection


UNICEF in action: Strategy & priorities

Birth registration

Violence against children

Justice for children

Child labour and commercial sexual exploitation

Children on the move

Protection and care for children affected by HIV/AIDS

Results for children


Justice for children

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-1252/Pirozzi
A girl brushes her hair in a dormitory at a re-education facility for girls in conflict with the law in Antananarivo, Madagascar.

The way children are treated by national legal systems and security institutions is integral to the achievement of the rule of law and its basic principles. Despite important progress over the past two decades, however, in many cases concerns of prevention, protection, rehabilitation and reintegration are not sufficiently taken into consideration for children who get into contact with the law.

For children who are in conflict with the law, imprisonment should only be “a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”. However, this basic right, as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is all too frequently ignored and abused in many parts of Eastern and Southern Africa. A recent survey by Save the Children found that up to 85 percent of children in police custody or correctional care in Kenya had committed no offence, while 70 percent of children who were suspected or accused of committing a crime in Uganda said they were stealing to get food and meet other basic needs.

While attention is focused on offenders, witnesses and victims of crime are often forgotten. Like children in conflict with the law, child victims and witnesses also need to have access to a judicial procedures that are sensitive to their individual circumstances and needs, respect their fundamental rights, and protect them from all forms of discrimination and abuse.

UNICEF in action

In line with the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the United Nations Approach to Justice for Children, UNICEF strongly advocates for the following:

  • Ensure that the best interests of the child is giving primary consideration;
  • Guarantee fair and equal treatment for every child, free from all forms of discrimination;
  • Advance the right of the child to express his or her views freely and to be heard;
  • Protect every child from abuse, exploitation and violence;
  • Treat every child with dignity and compassion;
  • Respect legal guarantees and safeguards in all processes;
  • Prevent conflict with the law as a crucial element of any juvenile justice policy;
  • Use deprivation of liberty of children only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time;
  • Mainstream children’s issues in all efforts to strengthen the rule of law.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2008-1776/Pirozzi
A boy presses his face against a window, Lesotho.

By building capacity at all levels, UNICEF works with justice officials, the police, social welfare workers and teachers, as well as children, their families and community leaders, to promote awareness of children’s rights and to ensure that international principles, such as those included in the common UN Approach to Justice for Children, are upheld. The guiding principles of this UN approach are to ensure that the best interests of the child are given primary consideration in all legal actions so that every child receives fair and equal treatment without any form of discrimination.

Results for children

In line with efforts to domesticate the CRC, comprehensive Children’s Acts have been drafted and reviewed in Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Swaziland. In 2009, Tanzania and Botswana followed in enacting their own Children’s Acts. South Africa’s Children’s Act, the Sexual Offences Act and the Child Justice Act form the foundation of a comprehensive child protection framework on par with the best in the world.

A number of other countries have drafted or adopted legislation to bring their own legal frameworks into compliance with international standards. Burundi and Ethiopia revised their penal codes to make them consistent with international standards for children, while Malawi developed a position paper to bring the national constitution into line with the CRC.

Nine countries are undertaking legal and policy reforms as part of a process to mainstream justice for children in line with the Secretary General’s Guidance Note on the UN common Approach to Justice for Children. Botswana, Tanzania and Malawi are working on implementation plans. Kenya, Lesotho, Namibia, Mozambique, Swaziland and Uganda continue to work on amendments to existing Acts or prepare new bills to ensure a better harmonization with the UN CRC and the African Charter.

Further to these efforts, law enforcement bodies are being reformed and trained to respond adequately to the needs of children, whether they are victims of crimes or offenders of the law. For example, in collaboration with local partners, the police forces in countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland have set up child protection units that are staffed by policemen and women, social workers and psychologists. These units handle all cases involving children, whether they are victims of crimes or offenders.

Additional achievements include:

  • In Kenya, holding facilities have been built in police stations to ensure that children are held separately from adults, and vans have been purchased as a form of child-friendly transportation between courts and remand homes for young offenders.
  • In Madagascar, a programme giving priority treatment to children’s case files has reduced the number of children who are charged with crimes by 88 percent.
  • Specialized legal aid services have become more readily available to children in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Somaliland and Somalia. ‘Child-friendly’ courts are being established in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, and Uganda.



 Email this article

unite for children