Having signed up to the UN charter on the rights of the child, the government of The Gambia called in professionals from abroad to help refashion juvenile justice. Christine Miller is one of them.
In 1999, The Gambia ratified the United Nations Charter on the Rights of the Child, necessitating far-reaching change in a number of areas, including juvenile justice. At the same time the country requested help from Voluntary Service Overseas for technical assistance in implementing the charter. VSO formed a five-year programme of intervention through volunteer placements, including in the summer of 2003 the post of juvenile justice co-ordinator.
The country has its difficulties: outdated colonial, legal and administrative systems; under- or unqualified personnel; scarcity of resources and technology; fast-paced urbanisation and low financial commitment from government. All these act as deterrents to development. However, the low level of serious offending among young people, plus the family and community support systems render the task a challenging rather than impossible one.
I trained professionals and helped introduce systems and methods of working that enable young people in conflict with the law to receive appropriate services. Monitoring systems have been introduced to generate data and underpin further resource allocation and development.
The co-ordinator writes national policy and supports individual practitioners in the field. Single and multi-agency training has been carried out with relevant professionals throughout the country. The training has focused not only on introducing the fundamental principles that underpin juvenile justice, but has also aimed at encouraging workers to embrace concepts of childhood and vulnerability despite customary and domestic laws that sanction corporal punishment for youth offenders.
One central task has been to move juvenile justice away from control of the security forces and into the social and community sphere. Thus, in 2002, the Juvenile Justice Unit was opened within the Department of Social Welfare. A throughcare worker post was created to work within the country’s juvenile detention facility, which was opened in 2000 with a capacity for 24 boys aged 14 to 20.
The throughcare worker receives weekly training from a VSO volunteer, (a senior child protection officer), plus monthly supervision from the juvenile justice co-ordinator. A significant achievement of the throughcare worker has been to encourage families to maintain contact with their offending sons. Thus, through negotiation, the YMCA funds family visits to the prison and provides accommodation for those travelling from afar. Since its inception, in March 2003, there has been a 50 per cent increase in regular visits by parents.
Christine Miller is a juvenile justice co-ordinator working closely with the police and prison departments, the judiciary and the Department of Social Welfare in The Gambia.
- Population: 1.5 million. The Gambia is one of the smallest yet most densely populated countries in Africa.
- The Gambia is about 11,000 sq km (a third of the size of Wales).
- Life expectancy is 57 years.
- Half the population is under 25.
- English is the official langauge although many local langauges, for example Wolof, Mandinka, Fula and Jola are widely spoken.
- The Gambia gained independence from Britain in 1965.
- 90 per cent of the population is Muslim, 10 per cent Christian. Many combine their faith with traditional beliefs.
- Average annual income: US $320
- Main export: peanuts