Human rights activists and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are pilling pressure on the government to construct safe homes for children in conflict with the law and victims of sexual abuse.
Currently, the law provides that no suspect under 18 years should be detained in prison or police custody while on remand or after conviction but instead, must be kept in a place of safety or a reformatory.
Despite these provisions, the number of children detained in police custody continues to rise, a development that rights activists are describing as unacceptable.
Executive Director for the Child Rights Advocacy and Paralegal Center (CRAPAC) Alfred Muunika, describes the situation as an infringement to the child care rights.
“Our courts made a judgement on this critical issue and we need the government now more than ever to live up to what was directed,” adds Muunika.
In June 2018, the High Court in Blantyre delivered a land mark judgment in a case that was brought by the Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), Youth Watch Society and the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC). They were concerned with appalling conditions in Bvumbwe and Kachere prisons which at that time had detained children awaiting trial and some were serving sentences.
The CSOs argued that the prisons did not meet the best interests of children, even in their predicament, and were also not formally designated as safety homes or reformatory centers for children in conflict with the law.
The court in its ruling ordered that all children detained at Kachere and Bvumbwe prisons awaiting trial should be transferred to safety homes within 30 days.
It further ordered that children who were found liable by a competent court should be transferred to safety home within 30 days.
Three years down the line, the government is yet to construct safety homes for the children.
As of 8 June, 2021, there were about 29 children in police custodies across the country with the youngest being 12 years old. Records show that they are being detained for offenses such as theft, burglary, murder and defilement.
While most of them have not appeared before the courts, others are waiting for their judgment.
Associate Professor of law at the Chancellor College, Edge Kanyongolo, points out that the government is in contempt of court by not constructing the homes even after the court’s determination.
“The constitution is clear that children must be kept away from adults in police custody or prisons. Mixing them is an open violation and defiance of the constitution,” explains Kanyongolo.
Kanyongolo also urges the CSOs to seek judicial intervention that would ensure that there is enforcement of the orders made by the court.
For Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO) which runs four private safe homes for women and children, it is expensive to operate such facilities.
Executive Director for YONECO, McBain Mkandawire, is challenging the government to allocate more resources in the national budget to cater for the construction of these homes.
“We must recognize that women and children that require assistance from such homes are spread across the country, hence the government needs to construct safe homes in all the regions of the country,” proposes Mkandawire.
Deputy Director for Social Welfare in the Ministry of Gender, Enock Bonongwe, points out that the holding of children in police custody or prisons is mostly as result of misinformation that children give upon arrest.
“We do not have any practice or intentions to hold children and adults together because we are aware of the implications,” stresses Bonongwe.
Bonongwe however indicates that currently, the government has other centers that keep children awaiting trial or women fleeing sexual abuse but the places do not have facilities of safe homes.
He agrees that there is need for the government to construct several structures meant to serve as safe homes.