It seems very intuitive to me that children shouldn’t be in prison. Reality unfortunately looks different. To date, 192 children live under harsh conditions in Burundi’s eleven prisons. The Convention on the Rights of the child makes special mention of children in conflict with the law – that they too have rights. However, in Mpimba, Burundi’s biggest prison in its capital in Bujumbura, around 80 children, both boys and girls, live alongside more than 2800 adults in precarious conditions.
A few months ago I joined my colleague Pedro, our Child Protection Specialist, on a visit to Mpimba. We were going to ensure that the various items that UNICEF had supplied to improve the living conditions of children in the prison had been received and were being used.
The items included books, cooking utensils, sport materials, beds and mattresses. Since a decent place to sleep is not a standard feature in Burundian prisons, UNICEF’s endeavour is to ensure that children don’t sleep on a concrete floor, but at least have a bed with a mattress. Also, in providing the children with basic cooking items, UNICEF makes up for the lack of a canteen.
On our way, I saw prisoners working on the fields around Mpimba. “Why wouldn’t they just try to run?” was the first question that came to my mind. But later I understand that having the chance to escape from prison for a short while is not worth the risk. Running and being caught means being kept in this dark, dirty prison for a much longer time.
I am staggered to see how overcrowded and dilapidated the prison is and how humdrum life in here, especially for children, must be. Mpimba was built for up to 800 prisoners, but with 2,819 current detainees, its capacity is seriously exceeded.
The boys’ room is full of bunk beds and we ask them if everybody had a bed to sleep on. “For now everybody has a bed, but the problem is that we don’t have mosquito nets”, they tell us. I look around, unsettled, and discern that there wouldn’t even be enough space to properly hang up nets. It worries me that these children are at great risk of contracting malaria.
Speaking to the group of boys, I am disturbed to hear that many of these children have been awaiting trial for long periods. Although custody is restricted to no more than 15 days, children often wait several months before being brought in front of a judge. Ensuring that a structure is child-friendly should include minimizing the time children are in detention waiting for trial and providing assistance and support by trained professionals such as social workers, doctors or teachers. However, most importantly, children should not be detained alongside adults. It is essential to reinforce efforts to ensure that children are treated with special consideration in Burundi’s legal system.
I am relieved to see that the items we provided had positively impacted the children’s lives. The girls mention that having hygiene articles such as soap and pads means one less sorrow.
The children tell us that since they cannot access formal classes, they read books in French to improve their language skills. Also, occasionally they play theatre to entertain each other. “And, one time a week we play with the footballs UNICEF gave us”, the boys tell us. This makes me remember how important it is that not only basic items such as shoes or plates are provided, but that we also shouldn’t forget to respect the children’s’ rights to play and to be creative.
In the car, I am absorbed in my thoughts. Getting children out of adult prisons is a core area of UNICEF’s child protection work in Burundi. That’s why UNICEF has just supported the construction of two new re-education centres in Rumonge and Ruyigi. Instead of being in a prison, minors in conflict with the law will now be transferred to these centres, where they will have access to education, vocational training and the chance to learn basic skills that will later help them to better reintegrate into society.
Right now, the Ministry of Justice in collaboration with its partners is seeking out qualified human resources to be able to open the doors of the re-education centres as soon as possible.
As access to education and training is key for children to improve their standing in life, I am looking forward to seeing these children transferred to the new centres – where they will be able to gain the skills and self-confidence that will allow them to become valuable members of their communities.
Julia Chukwuma is a Social Policy Officer at UNICEF Burundi.