The Daily Star roundtable on children in trouble with law |
More child-friendly legal system demanded
Senior ministers, legal practitioners, child-rights activists and NGO leaders at a roundtable yesterday called for a more child-friendly legal system to stop abuse of children in confinement for falling foul of the law.
Despite a comprehensive Children Act, 1974, over 1,000 juvenile offenders are wrongly tried as adults and abused under the system due to mismanagement, wrong approach to the juvenile framework and ignorance of the law by a section of the lower judiciary, police and government officers.
Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Moudud Ahmed and Minister for Social Welfare AAM Mujaheed, who were present at the roundtable, admitted to inadequate state systems to prevent abuse of confined children. They felt across-the-board changes in the legal system were necessary and said the amendments are in the pipeline to prevent abuse of children by the law.
"If need be, laws will be amended in case of juvenile justice to ensure that the age of a child offender is determined by the date of the offence committed," said Moudud at the roundtable titled, 'Children in trouble with Law", co-organised by Save the Children UK (SCUK) and The Daily Star at the latter's conference room.
As many as 1,004 children are currently in jail and 253 others in different Kishore Unnayan Kendras (KUK), according to a SCUK study titled 'Children in Trouble with Law'.
Among those in the KUKs, 57 children are under 5-year confinement, 14 above 5-year confinement, three in imprisonment for life and 179 others are in pre-trial or assessment stage.
Shohana Shabnam of the SCUK presented a keynote paper which said in 2002, an inter-ministerial committee was formed to protect the rights of the children and taskforces were constituted at national, district and upazila level.
The government also empowered 64 district women's affairs officers as ex-officio jail visitors and assigned upazila social welfare officers to render the duties of probation officers. The Police Headquarters also directed all police units to exercise the power of granting bail under Section 48 of the Children Act, 1974, the keynote paper added.
Speaking on the absence of birth and death registrations, which makes way for greater abuse of children, Moudud said that an act is on final stage to solve the issue and that he expects its passage in the next parliament session.
The minister also said the government is working on a mechanism to provide legal aid to Bangladeshi citizens imprisoned in foreign countries, particularly in the neighbouring ones.
Responding to an observation of advocate Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, that many Bangladeshi children are confined to Indian jails, Moudud said the government would take similar measures to bring back children imprisoned in foreign jails.
He called upon all the political parties to forge a national consensus against manipulation of children for political ends. Poverty is a major reason behind juvenile offence in a country where 48 percent people live under the poverty line, he added.
Mujaheed identified three institutional and management problems in dealing with children in trouble with the law. He said the most significant problem is ignorance of magistrates, law-enforcement agencies and probation officers about the legal approach to children.
He noted that a lack of training of magistrates and other law-enforcers on how to deal with children as the second problem that impedes greater prevention of abuse of troubled children. He pointed to the absence of co-ordination between magistrates, policemen and probation officers as a major cause for improper service toward children.
The minister emphasised an urgent need to explore mainstreaming of education in the KUKs and amendment to or repeal of certain laws relating to juvenile offences.
Mujaheed, however, noted that reduction of poverty and socio-political instability should also be viewed as fundamental changes that could positively change people's mindset towards children.
He observed that a greater bondage between parents and children and a lower incidence of broken homes could reduce the problem of children pushed towards crime.
The keynote paper identified excessive detention, lack of society or community mechanism to address child-rights issues, non-separate approach for children practised in the justice system as the deterrents.
It also pointed to a lack of relevant amendments, proper interpretation and understanding of the Children Act, 1974 and Children Rules, 1976, as major obstacles to protecting children's rights.
The paper also noted that the government is considering instituting a juvenile court in each district, amending the Vagrancy Act, 1943, raising the criminal responsibility from 7-9 years and upgrading the KUKs into educational or training institutes.
Advocate Shahdeen Malik said it needs to be realised that juvenile justice is something completely different from criminal justice. Even most judges are not fully aware of the contents of the Children Act, 1974 as a senior judge recently sentenced a child to death in a murder case.
Malik emphasised the need for more careful consideration by judges of cases relating to children.
Salma Ali observed that poor children who hardly receive legal counsel bear the brunt of the legal abuse and administrative neglect. She suggested a greater awareness among government workers about the sensitivities in dealing with juvenile offenders.
Shaheen Anam, executive director of Manusher Jonno, proposed effective steps to prevent children from being thrown into jail. She feared that even if the 1,004 children were to be released from jail, another thousand would be taken in if no significant preventive steps are there.
She asked the law-enforcement agencies to identify criminal gangs that exploit and abuse children for their own benefits. She also suggested a tighter monitoring of abuses by the law-enforcers in jail and in the KUKs.
Afsan Chowdhury, a child-rights activist, expressed shock at the existence of the 1943 Vagrancy Act, which he termed 'anti-poor' and 'counter-constitutional'. He said the existence of the law makes children more vulnerable to abuse by authorities and noted that the law perhaps is still there because of government support.
Wahida Banu of Aparajeo Bangladesh (AB) cited Chowdhury to say that most of the children put to jail under the law are more vulnerable because there is no-one to look after them.
She said their study shows certain criminal gangs exploit children by giving them arms and explosives in a bid to derive criminal and political benefits. Citing a lack of co-ordination among the government agencies, she said there is no co-ordination even among more than 200 NGOs working on child rights.
"Even the educated do not know how to behave with children. They respect the elders but neglect children in dealing with them," Banu said and urged for a child-friendly environment.
David Humphrey, programme director of the SCUK in Dhaka, called for greater understanding of the Children Act, 1974 that would lead to its proper implementation.
Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star who moderated the roundtable, called for specific government initiatives for more concrete results in ensuring the rights of the children.