Every day, children in parts of Central/Eastern Europe and Central Asia have their rights violated, according to an IDLO/UNICEF report on access to justice for children in the region.
Denied access to school, healthcare and social benefits, separated from their families, and affected by exploitation, abuse and violence in their homes and communities, few children ever seek redress. Fewer still obtain effective remedy, the report says. All too often, access to justice mechanisms set up for adults are not meeting their needs. Neither children nor their families have much knowledge of their rights – and children generally depend on adults to navigate the system on their behalf. Minority, poor and disabled children are further disadvantaged.
Access to justice is needed for violence and abuse in the family, child custody and visitation rights related to divorce proceedings, withdrawal of parental rights, and the placement of children in alternative care and adoption. Other reasons varied in prevalence between the four countries that the report focuses on, but the right to identity documents, denial of social benefits and exclusion from school also featured prominently, as did denial of health services, albeit to a lesser extent.
For their part, a significant majority of justice sector professionals interviewed considered children to have justice needs that current justice processes do not adequately address.
The report also sheds light on a widespread distrust of justice institutions, as well as other practical barriers: fees, distance from the courts, limited public information, and a lack of child-sensitive procedures.
But one of the report’s most striking findings was the negative impact of cultural and social beliefs, which discourage children from taking any action – whether confiding in an adult outside the home or reporting abuse within the family. Compounding this, children felt that they were not listened to nor believed and their experiences not valued.
One of the children interviewed in Kyrgyzstan thanked the researchers, “usually nobody listens to us. We need to throw out what we have inside and to tell our problems to somebody. Thank you for listening to us.” A sentiment echoed by others.
“IDLO is committed to building on existing reforms to strengthen justice systems so they both serve and protect children”, assured Pamela Kovacs, one of the report’s authors.
Since its adoption in 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has become the most rapidly and widely ratified international human rights treaty in history. Kovacs added, “All four countries studied in this report are signatories to the Convention and are making progress in the administration of justice, but in many cases, international commitments remain paper promises. The report also provides practical recommendations for action - more needs to be done to make these rights a reality for these children.”
The IDLO/UNICEF study focused on Albania, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Montenegro – but its conclusions echo more widely in the Western Balkans, the Caucasus and post-Soviet Central Asia.
Photo: Chris Booth