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Youth Justice in Africa

Access to justice for youth concerns the full spectrum of circumstances under which youth come into contact with the law. This includes their interaction with the justice system as youth in conflict with the law, as youth seeking redress for violation of their rights, and as youth giving evidence in a justice process. 

Access to justice is among the fundamental rights of all human beings, young people included. Indeed, the ability to access justice is one of the requirements for protecting the other rights of youth. The right to access to justice is, unfortunately, also one of the more neglected rights in Africa, with there being significant barriers to its realisation.

Youth access justice through a variety of mechanisms, both formal and informal. While a lot of investment has gone into ensuring that the formal justice mechanisms adhere to youth-rights protection standards, there are immense gaps in knowledge of the existence and use of the informal justice systems in African countries. There is an equal scarcity of information about the disproportionate difficulties that vulnerable groups of youth face in the justice system.

What is needed, furthermore, is a clear policy approach on the African continent to ensure that the right of youth to access justice is achieved. Much still needs to be done to enable these rights to be realised as far as reasonably possible.

It is thus imperative to take stock of the milestones that have been reached in enhancing the protection of youth in the context of access to justice and to respond to the abovementioned gaps in knowledge, policy and practice. Between 2015 and 2017, YMCAs in Zambia, Togo and South Africa, the YWCA in Zambia with partnership from YMCA/YWCA of Sweden altogether implemented a 3-year Youth Justice project and later on expanded to Madagascar, Senegal, Ethiopia and Nigeria. The basis for this project was to address the challenges facing young people in either in conflict with the law or those at risk of getting into conflict with the law in the three countries.

Accordingly, the main objective of this project is to provide a representative account of the current status of access to justice for youth in Africa in order to inform policy actions for accelerating the realisation of youth’s right to access to justice.

Specifically, the project seeks to;

  • Provide access to alternative opportunities for Vocational training, skills acquisition and on the job preparedness. The South Africa YMCA, for example, have been preparing post-detainee youth to be better adjusted to long-term job opportunities specifically as a strategy to address high rates of recidivism that are reported in the country.
  • We adopt a Theory of Change that was based on the Subject to Citizen (S2C) Philosophy of empowering youth to move from being subjects in oppressive systems to being active citizens whose voice is heard, who have space to act and who can influence their communities. This ensured that the basis for intervention was based on a conceptual framework that could be tested and that this project would be a prototype of engaging in youth work for youth in conflict with the law.
  • Reduce recidivism. Recidivism is a tremendously daunting challenge. Many prisons in Africa do not operate as rehabilitative centres but are instead havens for illegal drugs, gang crime, violence and even murder. Many of the youth who leave these facilities end up back for various reasons, one of which is stigma and discrimination attached to having served time in prison.

The importance of restorative justice has become still greater in light of the growing social misperception that youth-offending (often understood in the context of armed and gang violence) is on the rise and poses a threat to security in the community. The perceived threat of youth delinquency, often fuelled by inflammatory media reports and, at times, by political agendas, increases social pressure for the criminalization of youth and adolescents.

An important positive development in this respect is the movement to promote the use of restorative justice mechanisms. restorative justice can be adapted to meet the specific requirements of individual youth and, likewise, to reflect different social and cultural contexts. Restorative justice approaches with the involvement of religious leaders, parents, the law systems and the community as a whole have the potential, therefore, to promote and protect the best interests of the youth throughout the various procedural stages, whether he or she is a victim or offender. 

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