By Mustapha Jallow
The Chief Justice, in a keynote statement read on his behalf by Justice Kumba Camara, said the Judiciary fully recognizes and upholds juvenile justice administration high on its agenda, as demonstrated in the expansion of the children’s court from one to three children’s courts throughout the country.
This was said at a one day forum organised by the Department of Social Welfare in collaboration with UNICEF, on Wednesday, 26 November, 2014, at the SunSwing Beach Resort. The forum was meant for stakeholders to discuss issues aimed at improving the Child Justice System in the Gambia.
The Chief Justice said in 2011, it was only the Kanifing children’s court which was in operation, but today it is important to note that Brikama and Basse children’s courts respectively are fully functional and bringing justice to the door step of every Gambian and non Gambian children alike, thus reducing the backlog of cases.
The Chief Justice added that these Children’s courts are fully equipped thanks to support from UNICEF which provided the courts with office equipment, adding that capacity building for both the chairpersons and the panel members for effective service delivery has also been carried out during the period.
“It is worth noting that even as we recognize the need to strengthen our service delivery or intervention towards juvenile administration, we have for long been supporting efforts at promoting child friendly justice system in an integrated and coordinated way with stakeholders and partners,” said the Chief Justice.
The head of the Gambian judiciary noted that in consideration of the right of the child, proceedings shall be conducive to the interest of a juvenile and shall be conducted in an atmosphere of understanding which shall allow the juvenile to participate therein and express him/herself self freely, adding that the juvenile shall have the right to be represented by a legal advisor.
The Chief Justice said prior to sentencing, the background and circumstances in which the juvenile is living or conditions under which the offence has been committed shall be properly investigated through the support of the Department of Social Welfare, and that the decisions to be taken shall always be in proportion not only to the circumstances and needs of the juvenile but also the needs of society.
Speaking earlier, the Minister of Health and Social Welfare, Mr Omar Sey, expressed hope that with this high level national forum on the child justice system, the Government, NGOs and CBOs, civil society and international organizations will be able to enhance development regarding Child Justice and Child Protection issues and their implications for the development of children in The Gambia.
The Health Minister said The Department of Social Welfare under his ministry has all these years been promoting, supporting, advocating and protecting the rights of the most vulnerable children in the society. He said most children are experiencing lots of challenges which have negative impacts on their full development, adding that in this regard the Government of the Gambia understands this critical momentum and recognizes the key role of Child Justice and Child Protection in advancing growth, reducing child poverty and diminishing the vulnerability of children.
“Children are faced with many challenges such as their involvement in drug abuse which, in most cases, puts them at high risk of mental illness and in conflict with the law. It is important for all stakeholders to note that in a world increasingly influenced by mass media, images of children have come to symbolize the suffering of armed conflict and natural disasters. Their faces are transmitted around the world in real time with the aim, on one level, of drawing public attention to the plight of others but, perhaps more cynically, of providing the ‘shock’ content that draws viewers, generates sales and as such attracts advertising revenue,” he said.
Mr Sey said children are not simply the passive, vulnerable victims often portrayed, adding that from their very arrival in the world, they interact with the people and events around them. “They impact on their surroundings as individuals in their own right, and by the age of ten their cumulative experience have largely forged their personality and defined their future direction,” he said.
The Minister of Health said the youth may on the face of things have a more obvious impact on the security agenda, their life choices are generally mapped out for them as children. He said negative circumstances or surroundings, whether associated with family, school or other experiences, are more likely to lead to negative outcomes.
For her part, Madam Awa Joof, the UNICEF Child Protection Officer, said Justice for Children is a strong component of UNICEF’s work on the protection of the rights of children and the elimination of all forms of violence against children in all settings, including within the juvenile justice system.
Across the world, she said, violence at home, poverty and risky survival activities propel children into the Juvenile Justice System. “Once these children enter into the juvenile justice system, there is a real danger of their rights been infringed as numerous studies, conducted in various countries worldwide, have shown that children in the custody of the police or in criminal justice institutions are at a high risk of violence, which sometimes comes about as a result of the public perception of them as being criminals, and the prevalence of physical and psychological punitive approaches in the juvenile justice system,” said the UNICEF official.
The UNICEF Child Protection Officer said there is a great need for actors working in the area of justice for children to prohibit, prevent and respond to all forms of violence against children in the justice system setting.
She noted that the National Child Justice Committee, which has been set up with the responsibility of advocating on the issues of child justice, is an important mechanism in realizing these objectives, and it is important that it is given the necessary support to carry out its work in the coordination of child justice efforts.