Getting private organizations involved could ensure better protection for juveniles
I believe children have superpowers. They can make you cry, or take away your sorrows in the glimpse of an eye. Not all children are privileged to live a comfortable life, a life without worry and agony. Some of these children, due to their dire circumstances, end up committing offenses and face punishment imposed by the law of the land. What happens next? Where are they taken? Are they kept safe during this pandemic?
In Bangladesh, the definition of a child is not confined to one legislation but can be found within Section 1(3) of the Bengal Vagrancy Act 1943 as a person less than 14 years of age. Section 2(f) of the Children Act 1974 defines a child as a person under the age of 16 for the purpose of the juvenile justice system.
The same age has been advocated by the Women and Children Repression Prevention (Special Provisions) Act, 2000, amended in 2003 as being the threshold to classify a person as a child. In contrast, the UN Convention on the Rights of Children and The Children Act 2013 defines a child as any person under the age of 18.
At present, Bangladesh follows the 2013 act for determining whether a person should be treated as a child, and it has unambiguously stated that child offenders, ie juveniles, can only be tried by juvenile courts and should be directed towards Juvenile Development Centres (JDC), also known as Child Development Centres (CDC), as needed.
However, it was only after the involvement of the UNCRC that juvenile justice was made an international issue. Bangladesh ratified the UNCRC in 1990 as a commitment to uphold the rights of Bangladeshi children. Article 37 clearly states: “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment … every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age.”
The main aim of introducing the juvenile justice system was to help the children in need rather than subjecting them to punishment. The goal is to ensure smooth reintegration of the child in society, once the period of sentencing is over.
In light of ensuring protection of juveniles, the first juvenile centre in Bangladesh was opened in 1978 in Tongi, Gazipur.
The second one was opened in 1995 in Jessore, while another exclusive centre for only girls was opened in 2003 in Konabari.
While the country now has three centres, what has been a grave matter of concern still is that the centres have been functioning at an extremely unsatisfactory level, and are nowhere near the standard expected.
The JDCs have low capacity and are overcrowded. The Dhaka Tribune reported that the Tongi JDC has a capacity of 300 but there were 941 inmates at a time. Further, low-grade food, lack of medicine, and increased incidents of torture have left these children scarred both physically and mentally.
UNB reported in August that three dead bodies of juveniles have been found at the Jessore centre, which appears to be the result of a clash between two resident gangs. Such clashes are common phenomena in these centres, as evident through cases reported over the years.
In 2016, a visit by the chairman of NHRC Bangladesh to the JDC in Konabari revealed that girls were deprived of privacy and were subjected to sexual harassment. Inadequate counselling at the centres has left these children demotivated and depressed.
The centres do not have special facilities for disabled youths and adequate steps have not been taken to initiate the provision of special care and attention. Lack of funds has been the main devil in stopping the development of such centres.
Owing to the pandemic, since March 2020, there has been an upsurge in the number of juveniles detained at the centres. Unicef reported in April that there were around 1,000 children awaiting trial since the courts closed in March in Bangladesh. Limited sanitization, lack of health support, and overcrowding reduced the possibility of social distancing and increased the chances for the children to get infected.
The centres were potential hotspots for the virus, and therefore, with the opening of the virtual courts, hundreds of children were released from the centres in between May and July 2020. Unfortunately, as reported by BLAST, due to the financial crisis, many parents refused to take back their children, while many others could not travel to reach their children.
The crisis is not over yet. The courts have reopened and while the judiciary has taken an optimistic approach, still there are hundreds of children awaiting trial and release from the centres. It appears that due to the backlog of cases, the pending trials are unlikely to be cleared overnight.
A good solution to improve the facilities at the centres would be to offer these centres to be run by private organizations like in the US and the UK. This can ensure a greater number of centres across the country
Involvement of private organizations would increase funding, reduce overpopulation, bring in upgraded programs at the centres, and ensure adequate medical supplies.
While no positive results are guaranteed, it appears that some solution to increase the number of centres is better than none.
Mariha Zaman Khan is an Advocate of Dhaka District and Sessions Judges Court.