Improving the Administration of Child Justice in Zimbabwe

The Child Justice Bill will seek to establish a separate juvenile justice system that is centered on principles of restoration and rehabilitation of child juvenile offenders.

Dr. Tajudeen Oyewale UNICEF Representative, Zimbabwe 
Heroes graphic
UNICEFZimbabwe/2023/Tanaka Ziyavaya
03 August 2021

In 2019, Zimbabwe celebrated 30 years since the Government’s ratification of the Convention of the Right of Child (CRC).

Progress toward upholding the CRC is enforced by the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), to which states must report progress every few years. While the Country is finalizing the 2021 progress report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the announcement last week of Cabinet approval of the Child Justice Bill and the Children’s Amendment Bill is a major landmark in the quest to ensuring that children’s rights are protected as enshrined in Article 81 of the Zimbabwe Constitution. The two pieces of legislation, which will soon go through parliamentary scrutiny, are major milestones in the protection and advancement of children’s rights in Zimbabwe.

Currently, a child as young as seven who commits a crime in Zimbabwe can face criminal charges, and if facing a prison sentence, they are likely to be placed in a prison together with adults. There is consensus that no child, regardless of their crime, should endure incarceration without the necessary protection from further harm and abuse. While we welcome recent amnesty measures of the Government to pardon some child offenders in March 2020 and April 2021, UNICEF is concerned that the impact of the COVID-19 lockdowns on the justice system may result in long period of detention for children in conflict with the law ahead of trial.

The Child Justice Bill will seek to establish a separate juvenile justice system that is centered on principles of restoration and rehabilitation of child juvenile offenders. It aims at increasing the minimum age of criminal responsibility to twelve and take into account specific vulnerabilities of children in conflict with the law, including the needs of children with disabilities. The Bill will also provide for separate courts to deal with children in conflict with the law and foster a restorative as opposed to a punitive justice system for children.

The Children’s Amendment Bill on the other hand will bring focus to ensuring compliance with section 19, as read with section 81 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe which grants every child the right to be protected from sexual exploitation, child labour and any form of economic exploitation, maltreatment, neglect or any form of abuse. The Bill is hinged on the principle of ‘the best interest of the child’ which finds its basis in Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC).

If enacted into law, the Bill will define a child as a person below the age of 18 years, which is in line with the Constitution of Zimbabwe and international law. The Bill will also seek to end all forms of discrimination against children whose parents are not married and oblige parents to obtain birth certificates for their children – both a fulfilment of the right of children to identity but also as a crucial document in accessing the justice system.

Since 2013, UNICEF through the Child Protection Fund (CPF) supported by the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Switzerland has been working with the Government of Zimbabwe and partners to improve the administration of child justice by supporting the Pre-Trial Diversion (PTD) programme for children in conflict with the law. The programme, officially launched in 2019, has supported over 3,000 children with minor offences to be diverted from the formal criminal justice system to a scheme where the children are counselled and supported to explore alternative options, thereby giving them a second chance.

The program, currently available in 38 districts, ensures that children do not gain a criminal record, but rather work closely with the Legal Aid Directorate (LAD), the arm of the Government that provides free legal assistance to those who cannot afford private counselling. The PTD programme will now enjoy legal support through the new Child Justice Bill after passage into law.

This is a great moment to improve the administration of child justice in Zimbabwe. As we look forward to the Government to advance the parliamentary hearing on these two bills to improve the legal framework, UNICEF through the CPF and partners are also mindful that more is required to strengthen institutional capacity for implementation. The Pre-Trial Diversion Programme, for example, needs to be expanded to cover all districts and the Legal Aid Directorate need to be decentralization to expand access of children to free legal assistance.

Community level awareness is also required to prevent children from falling into a life of crime, as well as to protect children from exploitation and abuse. At the same time, the welfare of children who are incarcerated for serious crimes must be prioritized, including children of mothers incarcerated in prisons. A combination of institutional and community approaches are required to improve the administration of child justice in Zimbabwe.

#ForEveryChild, protection from exploitation and abuse, including access to safe and affordable justice system.