Alarge number of children in Bangladesh are facing violence in a wide range of settings including family, schools, workplaces, communities and in care and justice systems. Reform of the youth justice system started since the Children Act was passed in 2013. As a replacement for the outdated Children Act 1974, the 2013 Act was a legislative attempt to put in place a modern system of rehabilitation, incorporating greater use of community-based interventions, and the promotion of initiatives to deal with the juvenile offenders.
In youth justice system, punishment and deterrence are not effective strategies for helping them succeed at school and work. They need basic support, opportunities and specialised treatment for getting reintegrated into the society. In this perspective, positive child development service of the Child Development Centers (CDCs) can play a valuable role to establish a sound environment for development and rehabilitation of child offenders. The CDCs are assigned to protect the best interest of every child and youth staying in there and to impart appropriate education including the necessary vocational training. Hence, the child development approach can offer valuable guidance and help for the children to develop their pro-social strengths to increase their ability to contribute to a healthy family and community life.
Establishment of three CDCs along with Children's Court as per the Children Act 1974 was a significant institutional development for juvenile justice system in Bangladesh. Two of them were established at Tongi in 1978 for 300 boys and Jessore in 1995 for 150 boys. In 2002, the third CDC for girls was established at Konabari, Gazipur, with a capacity of 150 inmates. Another CDC with a capacity of 300, is going to be established at Joypurhat District. No special Children's Court has been established in CDCs of each district yet.
Sections 59-69 of the Children Act 2013 explain the structure, activities, regulations, inspection and procedures of CDC in detail. Unfortunately, even after 2013, the number of established CDCs is not adequate. Moreover, the concept and principles of positive children and youth development programme in the existing CDCs under the Department of Social Services (DSS), Ministry of Social Welfare is not functioning properly. In practice, lack of Children Rules or guidelines and lack of coordination among concerned ministries are creating the hindrance.
Though the Act has inserted substantive provisions of alternative care, family conferencing, diversions, still rules need to be adopted as to how family conferencing and diversions would be conducted at the ground level. Moreover, punitive mindset of the parents and family members as well as the police officers, judges and government officials is one of the most challenging issues. But the Children Act 2013 does not have any specific provision to address this problem. The Children Act 2013 explicitly prohibits death penalty and life imprisonment for children between 9 to 18 years old. However, this does not apply to those who are sentenced under the previous Act.
After about four years of its enactment, the availability of a child's desk in a police station, adequate probation officers, national welfare board and sufficient number of children's courts are yet to be set up in all designated areas. With the scarcity of place and the typical mindset of the society at large, one may find the provisions of the Act to be only lofty rules.
The government authorities should act proactively to make the necessary rules and regulations dealing with non-custodial sanctions in line with the General Comment of the Committee on the Rights of the Child 2007 and the Council of Europe Guidelines. The government should focus on Children Court, Child and Welfare Board, CDC, diversion programs and ADR. Children Development Centre can offer workshops for the parents involving the children for changing the age-old punitive parenting style. A sound child development system fundamentally requires improved social services, specialised assistance, child-centered initiatives and committed personnels with required skills, knowledge and experience.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Law, Bangladesh Open University.