IMT conducts nationwide stakeholder consultations on the Child Justice Bill

The Inter-Ministerial Taskforce on the Alignment of Legislation to the Constitution (IMT) with support from EU-UN Spotlight Initiative held nationwide stakeholder consultations for the Child Justice Bill.

The series of nationwide stakeholder consultations were held from 13 to 19 June 2019 across Zimbabwe’s major provinces and districts including remote areas. A technical stakeholder consultative workshop held on 13 and 14 June 2019 for the Southern Region of the country was attended by several stakeholders from diverse organizations and government officials working with children in contact with the law.

Due to the significance of the Child Justice Bill and the need to increase citizen’s participation in the law making. The IMT took the consultations to grassroots and engaged with community members (adults, primary and secondary school teachers, school children and children detained at the country’s probation hostels and institutes and those that are currently serving their sentences at Hwahwa prison) from several districts such as Luveve, Hwange, Beit-Bridge, Gweru, Gutu, Marange, Mutare and Murehwa.

The Child Justice Bill is essentially a piece of legislation which seeks to provide for a criminal justice system tailor-made for child offenders. The need to create a separate juvenile justice system came as a result of the new Constitution which provide for peculiar rights of children. In addition, the country’s criminal justice laws underpinned by retributive tenets are fragmented with a myriad of laws providing for different aspects of juvenile justice. Hence, it became apparent that the country needed a separate legislation that would cater for the interest of children with the view of rehabilitating them to become law abiding citizens.

Of interest to note were views expressed by stakeholders regarding the current laws and procedures relating to the administration of cases involving child offenders. A section of the stakeholders aired out challenges faced under the current criminal justice system. For instance, some stakeholder felt that section 64 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act which provide for competent charges in sexual offences with young persons is problematic and caused several challenges. They also added that they are no places of safety for child offenders in smaller towns. Other challenges in small towns are exacerbated by the shortage of probation officers.

Furthermore, they highlighted how some magistrates and judges lack specialized training in handling child related matters. The issue of child offenders and how justice has to be administered raised different emotions and opinions. At one of the schools where an educational professional was interviewed, it was expressed that children are let loose when they commit crime. The educational officer added that some children commit serious offences hence these children should be treated equally with adults because the severity of a crime is usually the same whether committed by a child or an adult. Other educational professionals that were interviewed pointed that some child offenders do not reform, thus stiffer sentences may curb child offences and deter the children from carelessly committing crime.

Further, a school principal who was interviewed in one of the schools in Matabeleland expressed that most laws overprotected the children in many aspects. He pointed that corporal punishment was very useful, but since it had been outlawed, the teachers were now unable to effect and enforce discipline. It was also noted that educational professionals were of the view that they are usually left out in a lot of discussions involving children. For instance, it was highlighted that most teachers and the community members at large were not sensitized about the intended meaning of scrapping flogging in schools and communities.

Stakeholders also felt that children with disabilities are marginalized; and therefore, there is a need to have a law that caters for children who have disabilities and who will be in conflict with the law. It was recommended that justice officials that deal with children with disabilities should be trained to cater for the special needs of these children. Further, it was noted that there are no appropriate measures put in place for child offenders living with disabilities. They noted that the infrastructure at the courts were also not user-friendly for children with disabilities.

Another key concern from the key stakeholders was that the current law has no provisions on how child offenders can be separated from adults especially at the time of arrest. The law should expressly provide for a clear procedure to be adopted from the time a child offender is arrested until their appearance in court. Furthermore, it was pointed that the law should incorporate the Pre-Trial Diversion programme and provide for diversion methods that achieve restorative justice.

The technical stakeholders that attended the consultation workshop indicated that there was a need to ensure that the Bill is comprehensive and provide for progressively realization of the children’s rights entrenched in the constitution and other international instruments such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child and African Charter of the Rights and Welfare of the Child. They also expressed diverse views with regards to practical implementation of the Bill and recommended that probation officers and other role players must be trained to be sensitive to the needs of the children.

The national wide consultations offered an opportunity for stakeholders to express their views and to provide recommendations on the proposed child justice bill. Some of the recommendations needed were on the minimum age of criminal capacity of children. While some stakeholders welcomed the proposal in the Bill to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 12, other people felt that it was still too low and must be increased to 14 or 16. Stakeholders highlighted that the justice system should include assessors trained to verify if a child is aware of the crime committed and that the state must to assist and fund the process of age estimation in relation to children who do not possess birth certificates.

Stakeholder also proposed that the Bill should be centered on customs and norms of Zimbabweans and expressed that, like the old times canning and counselling should work together to enforce discipline as these are traditional ways that were used to enforce discipline.     Another recommendation from the stakeholders was that the rebuttable presumption should be removed.

It was also suggested that the Bill should have provisions which allow for those who deal with child offenders to consider circumstances of the child, family background, the child’s level of maturity, psychological development so as to understand cause of criminal behavior. This was proposed bearing in mind that children are often susceptible to many influences without criminal intent.

Further, stakeholder recommended that Bill should have provisions that ascertain the nature and gravity of the offence and have mechanisms to determine a child’s acknowledgement of wrong doing and interrogate level of maturity and therefore administer a proper sentencing. The child justice bill should be rooted in best international guidelines and legal instruments that are applicable to the Zimbabwean context.

The IMT representatives told the stakeholders that the proposed child justice system seeks to come up with a restorative system which is aimed at rehabilitating child offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.

A call was made for the Bill to have provisions which sets up structures and institutions to cater for children who are in conflict with the law. These institutions should focus on training and equipping child offenders with critical life skills. It was noted that these training institutions can bridge a gap especially to children who may have lost their parents and guardians and who would need some parental counselling and control.

Stakeholders also called for stiffer penalties for delinquent behavior indicating that these stringent penalties can deter the likelihood of recidivism. Furthermore, stakeholders elaborated for a need for the Child Justice Bill to ensure that all key role players (social workers, police officers, probation officers, magistrates, prosecutors and other government agencies) work together for the best interest of children in contact with the law.

In conclusion it was aired by the stakeholders that it would be ideal if these inter-departments and organizations hold meetings regularly, and have clearly defined roles in the administration of the proposed piece of legislation.