UNICEF Tunisia: Towards enhanced legal assistance for children in contact with the law
Breaking the Cycle: Empowering Troubled Tunisian Youth for a Brighter Tomorrow
“If we can get our hands on the social reasons, we are able to reduce the rates of children committing legal infractions. And then we can begin talking about alternatives to incarceration for the child.”
The crystals of sunlight are crisp in the cold December air as they fall upon the Hay Zouhour neighborhood in Kasserine, a city in the mountains of western Tunisia. The streets branching off among the concrete and brick homes are mostly unpaved, and groups of kids on foot and men on motorcycles move up and down the paths. On one of these streets is the home of Hammoud*, 17.
Hammoud sits at the door of his family’s home that gives onto a small courtyard built around an olive tree. He spoke about his troubles in recent years with the police, the law, and the alternatives he’s benefitted from.
“It was last year and I was leaving school around noon. A kid from my neighborhood told me to come with him to bring something for his dad. While I waited for him, he took something [from a company] and fled. Two policemen saw me with him and arrested me.” Hammoud was accused of having stolen equipment from an iron production company.
He went on, “The police grabbed me and brought me to the police station. They treated me violently. They insulted me and used bad language. I spent two days in the holding cell. The cell had lots of other people from Hay Zouhour. It smelled terrible. There was no toilet. The food there was awful.”
Luckily, while Hammoud faced a potential prison sentence, Hamza Rabhi, a lawyer with the International Legal Foundation (ILF) local branch in Kasserine, was able to guide the adolescent towards a better outcome.
“Hammoud’s character is not that of a criminal. It might be instead the environment he came up in. He is, in fact, a victim,”
“Mr. Rabhi, the lawyer, helped me so much. If it wasn’t for him, my boy might still be in prison.”
Hammoud’s mom, Rafika sat in the courtyard with the olive tree and spoke of how her son made it out of trouble and on the path to a better life.
Rafika works several jobs at once just to make ends meet and to support her four sons. Her husband suffers from a chronic illness that makes it very hard for him to help out. Thus, a lawyer’s consistent support was essential for her to navigate the process of getting Hammoud away from a punitive justice system and into more positive alternatives.
Nearly 130 kilometers to the east, in the ancient city of Kairouan, the efforts to give children in conflict with the law a second chance is looking bright.
For Sabri Bhiba, head of the child protection delegation in Kairouan, UNICEF’s intervention is an integral part of protecting children from carceral detention.
From his office downtown, he said, “[When we collaborate with ILF and UNICEF] right away, we begin to look at the root reasons why a child might commit the same infractions repeatedly.”
Bhiba went on, “If we can get our hands on the social reasons, we are able to reduce the rates of children committing legal infractions. And then we can begin talking about alternatives to incarceration for the child.”
In the village of Bouhajla, in a rural area outside of Kairouan city, Hédi*, 15 years old, sits with his mother at home.
Hédi bought a used cell phone from his brother. He didn’t know it then, but the phone was stolen. He later sold the phone. When the phone’s owner reported the theft to the police, Hédi and his brother were arrested and put in a detention center for minors for 10 days.
Fortunately, Hédi has had the support of UNICEF and ILF. When asked about how their lawyers had helped him, his demeanor lightened.
“Miss Saïda Mejri, the [ILF] lawyer, got us out of detention. She stood with us through the ordeal. If they had not helped us, we would have been sentenced to prison.”
“And,” he said, “I made my amends. I’m more careful about what I buy and where I buy it from—I don’t buy a phone without paperwork, for example. I’m a responsible person now, and I’m working.”
The lawyer, Saïda Mejri, sitting near a wall in Hafidha’s home where red peppers dry in the sun, said about ILF-UNICEF’s work with Hédi and his brother,
“If we can, we apply Section 99 from the Child Protection Code and find an alternative to incarceration, like professional training, school programs, or any other positive thing—our institution does it, in the framework of full representation of the child.”
To this end, she explained how, when she heard about the Hédi and his brother’s case, she immediately came to Bouhajla to find the plaintiffs who accused the boys of stealing, and convinced them to agree to a mediated settlement. This caused the court sentencing to be annulled.
ILF, together with UNICEF, cooperates with the local social integration center for troubled children, the child protection delegation, police stations, the public prosecutor, and other institutions to give full representation and protection to children in conflict with the law.
“When you get the child out of detention, it makes a huge difference. He needs to get out at the earliest opportunity so that he doesn’t become accustomed to being around other criminals and ruin his life later on.” He concluded, “This work is invaluable. You can save a child from the criminal world.”
Towards the empowerment of adolescents and the prevention of their association with violent groups (Kasserine and Kairouan) was a 17-month programme implemented by UNICEF and its partners. The objective of the programme was to build up positive protection mechanisms for children in conflict with the law and alternatives to detention, specifically in the Tunisian governorates of Kasserine and Kairouan. In total, 88 clients received legal representation: 75 boys and 13 girls in 173 cases. 101 cases have been concluded during the programme’s reporting period included 19 dismissals, 37 mediations with plaintiffs, and 19 alternatives to incarceration, 14 of which included surrender to parents. Custodial sentences were issued in 21 cases.
The programme also included other elements like the construction, rehabilitation and equipment of units for cases of violence against women and children at four police and national guard stations in Kasserine and Kairouan, training of police, national guard and justice system workers on child rights and best practices, and sensitization campaigns for children's rights in schools, among other activities. These activities were made possible through financial support received from the government of Japan and the government of the Netherlands.
The Embassy of Japan in Tunisia, one of the funders of the initiative stated that, “In partnership with UNICEF, we supported the rehabilitation of two child protection police units in Kairouan by equipping IT, security, equipment and furniture. This tangible support is very important to guarantee a safe and comfortable space both physically and psychologically for the children as well as for the workers who are there.”
“The government of The Netherlands contributes to strengthening the role and voices of youth in Tunisia. Of course, this starts with child protection. [And so] it was very important for us to contribute to the Kasserine region. Youth in Kasserine are at greater risk of radicalization or being drawn to violence as a result of marginalization and socio-economic issues. Levels of violence against women are also particularly high in this region. When we visited the rehabilitated police units, we spoke to women police officers who are trained to deal with violence against women, and the police is trained to protect children’s rights. We hope this will contribute to a safer environment for the youth in Kasserine, and to increased trust in the security services.”
Watch the video featuring Hammoud (17) and Hedi (15) two beneficiaries of alternative measures to detention as part of the assistance programme for children in contact with the law led by UNICEF in partnership with #ILF the International Legal Foundation in Tunisia.
With the financial support of the Embassies of Japan and the Netherlands in Tunisia