Community initiatives can make child rights a reality
Oli Md. Abdullah Chowdhury
BANGLADESH is one of the earliest signatories of UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). “No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time” said in Article 37 (b) of the CRC. However, similar tune was echoed in a domestic law, namely, the Children Act, 1974, long before the CRC came in to force. Although practice is different, Children Act 1974 referred confinement as last resort for children coming in conflict with law.
Formation of task force and improved juvenile justice administration
With the formation of National Task Force (NTF) following a ruling of the High Court Division in 2003, the process of releasing children from jail got momentum. Where there is active District Task Force (DTF) functioning in the district, children in large number got release from different district jails. Coordinated effort of administration, police, social service and NGOs through DTF helped securing release of children from jails expeditiously where releasing children took a long time before DTF formed. However, the trend of children coming in conflict with law sustained due to poverty, deprivation and other socio-economic reasons.
Example from Sylhet Division
Children from marginalised communities are always at the risk of coming in conflict with law. A recent study in Sylhet reveals the clear picture. Following table illustrates number of children detained in different district jails in Sylhet division:
The situation has not improved in terms of number of children in jails. It is true children got released from jail in large numbers. However, actors of juvenile justice have failed to prevent children coming in conflict with law and ending in jails.
Children at risk of coming in conflict with law
In spite of all the initiatives taken by government and non-government agencies, children from vulnerable communities are largely at risk of coming in conflict with law. Children living in slums or in border areas are at great risk of coming in conflict with law. Children living without parental care and children living in violent family environment are more likely to come in conflict with law than other children.
Children often end up in prison as victim of crime. Drug traffickers and smugglers tend to use children and parents suffering from poverty fail to protect children from such engagement. There are instances where parents from marginalised community encouraged their children to get themselves involved with those trades to earn money for the family.
Determination of age has become a critical issue in dealing with juvenile justice. Not only there are different age limit of children set by domestic laws in relation to crime committed without keeping conformity with the Children Act, jurisdiction of Juvenile Court is also not stated authentically. There are cases where police had noted down the age in official document according to their whim.
The Children Act, 1974, prescribes the procedure of establishing a Juvenile Court. According to this law, the government, may, by notification in the official gazette, establish one or more Juvenile Courts for any local area. However, any other court cannot try a case exclusively triable by the court of sessions not even by the juvenile court, if that court is subordinate to the court of sessions.
The minimum age of penal responsibility in Bangladesh is nine and the age between nine to twelve is the age of discretion (Protection of Children in Conflict with the Law in Bangladesh. While Bangladesh submitted initial report to UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in May 1997, the committee welcomed the information that the age of penal responsibility was being raised to 12 years. However, the government has so far raised the age only to 9 years. Therefore, the minimum age of penal responsibility fixed by the legal system of Bangladesh falls reasonably short of international standards.
Community-based child protection
Unless there is a community-based child protection mechanism in place, incidents of child imprisonment would continue. Support from community is very crucial in order to integrate those children already in conflict with law. If a juvenile already in conflict with law is not integrated in the society, there is a high risk for the juvenile of coming in conflict with law again.
Functioning of Upazila Task Force (UTF) at the upazila level would not only facilitate release of children, but help in tracing family also. Even if a child comes in conflict with law, UTF could help the child in securing release through early intervention.
There is a provision in the Children Act (Section 48) where police can provide bail to a juvenile accused under the custody of a responsible people in the locality.
There is a UP Standing Committee on Women and Children in each union parishad. If these committees are activated in all places, risk of children coming in conflict with law will largely be reduced. However, these committees need orientation on juvenile justice and child protection mechanism.
Similarly, City Corporation and municipality need to be involved with the child protection mechanism. Committee on community policing could play a significant role in each ward. There are 27 Wards in Sylhet City Corporation. If councillors and other members of the committees are sensitised on juvenile justice, children at risk of coming in conflict law would have better protection.
Strengthening local government is encouraged in our constitution. Involvement of local elected bodies (LEB) is crucial both for securing release of children from jails and ensuring child protection at the grassroots. In order to enhance child protection mechanism, LEB needs orientation on juvenile justice and child protection. Unless there is a protection mechanism installed in the community, children from marginalised would be at risk of coming in conflict with law.
Oli Md. Abdullah Chowdhury is a human rights worker.