Lawyers praise new Child Rights Law as an important advocacy tool for children
Fighting for children’s rights in Rakhine State
The women of Thazin Legal Aid Group are on a mission to defend and advocate for the rights of children and youth in Rakhine State.
Daw May Thet Khine is a Legal Officer and lawyer from Thazin in the state capital, Sittwe. She assigns a range of cases to her team of seven, from defending the rights of victims of trafficking, children accused of breaching immigration law, to, now more frequently, children and adults who have been arrested for alleged association with illegal armed groups. Daw May Thet Khine is thankful for the new Child Rights Law which provides her and her team with the tools to advocate for these children.
“Before the Child Rights Law was enacted in 2019, it was difficult to advocate to the court, as the law was too vague,” she said. Now, thanks to the new law, Daw May Thet Khine can advocate that children are treated as children and child-friendly procedures are introduced.
“Recently, I represented two children who were arrested on drug charges. The children were aged 17 at the time of their arrest, but during the court process, they turned 18, so the court held them in custody.”
When Daw May Thet Khine discovered the children had been 17 when they were arrested, she was able to advocate to the court. “Thanks to the Child Rights Law, I could advocate to have the children tried according to the juvenile justice process, which means they didn’t need to be detained,” she said.
Daw May Thet Khine’s colleague Daw Pann Aye Zann pointed out that the new Child Rights Law aligns with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international human rights law which Myanmar signed in 1991.
“The previous children’s law had a lot of gaps. The new law has more detail on child rights, which makes it much easier to advocate for children. The big difference is the age of the child,” she said. The new Child Rights Law states that a child is anyone under the age of 18, whereas under the previous law, children in Myanmar were defined as anyone under 16.
As well as representing children and adults in the courtroom, Daw Pann Aye Zan trains para-legals and community members on the different areas of the law.
“Most people in Rakhine have limited legal awareness and before I started my work, I too didn’t think legal rights were my concern. It’s a very common misconception that the law only concerns lawyers, judges and law officers. Now I understand we all need to be aware of our rights!”
Daw Pann Aye Zan says that in some townships parents are not aware of the legal age of a child, and that this gap in understanding can lead to serious violations of children’s rights.
“We need to advocate to the community so that everyone is aware of the law and their rights.” – Daw May Thet Khine
Daw Pann Aye Zan loves being a lawyer. “Only a lawyer can advocate to the court for the rights of children; no one else can do that. People in Rakhine aren’t interested or aware of their rights, so it is up to us, as lawyers, to share this message.”
Daw May Thet Khine agrees. “We need to advocate to the community to change this belief so that everyone is aware of the law and their rights.”
Advocating under the Child Rights Law is an ongoing task of awareness raising and education. Often local police who are unfamiliar with the law will handcuff children or detain them with adults, acts that are no longer allowed under the new law. The failure of law officials to properly implement the Child Rights Law is a major concern for UNICEF and Thazin.
Now, with COVID-19, Daw May Thet Khine and Daw Pann Aye Zan are facing new challenges when it comes to seeing their clients and making sure that they are being treated as children under the law.
Since COVID-19 began UNICEF has been working closely with its legal aid partners including Thazin, as well as Myanmar’s Supreme Court. Protective materials have been distributed across the country which allowed courtrooms to remain open when COVID-19 first hit. Unfortunately, the second wave of COVID-19 has forced courts to close. However, the child friendly interview rooms that UNICEF has been setting up in partnership with the Supreme Court have been repurposed for virtual court hearings, allowing some cases to continue.
UNICEF is committed to working with the Government of Myanmar and its implementing partners in their development and implementation of juvenile justice systems that recognize at all times that decisions and actions concerning a child must be guided by the principle of the best interests of the child, and that uphold the child’s right to life, survival, development, and to be heard.
*Thazin Legal Aid Group is an implementing partner of UNICEF Myanmar. Together, with funding support from the European Union, Thazin and UNICEF Myanmar promote access to legal aid for children in Rakhine State.