Lawyers have appealed to the Government to revise prison sentences for minors who commit offences, especially the ones related sexual harassment, saying that their severity was causing more harm than good.
The issue was raised in a meeting to discuss how to improve delivery of legal aid to minors.
While minors must face consequences for their actions, the layers said, most of them were more in need of high level rehabilitation and not heavy punishment.
Aimé Ntazika, of the Huye Intermediate Court, told the participants that there were many challenges when it comes to defending minors, including reconciling the punishments with the crimes.
“I am not saying that the minors who are found guilty of sexual offences should not be punished. You can’t ignore punishing a teenager who has defiled a toddler but I think that there is need to revise penalties regarding sexual offences between children close in age,” he said.
Ntazika said that the minors who are slapped with five years or more in prison never recover, insisting that there was need to focus more on behaviour change than punishment.
“There is need to look into more juvenile detention centres like the one in Nyagatare District where children serve their sentences which concentrates more on correcting the children and turning them into responsible citizens,” he said
Rosine Gatesi called for advocacy in child behavioural change but also to push the Government to look into how these children can be helped without them spending time in jail.
“We need advocacy, giving a child a long sentence doesn’t help him or her in the long term. What is needed is a lesser sentence and a hands-on rehabilitation programme. Five or ten years is damaging,” she said.
However, the Head of the Access to Justice Department in the Ministry of Justice, Martine Urujeni, disagreed saying that a crime as serious as sexual violence must be given the seriousness it deserves despite the age of the offender is.
“Whether committed by a child or an adult, rape or defilement destroys the victim emotionally, psychologically and physically. We should not downplay it because it was committed by a minor,” she said.
Need for children detention centres
In her presentation, Justine Giraneza, an inspector at the Ministry of Justice, said that in a recent evaluation had discovered that the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) detention centres had no sections for children.
“This is a serious issue because at the Kanama Sector RIB station, we found a minor who was being detained and he told us that the adults in the cell had advised him to claim that he didn’t know his age and he would be released. This is negative influence on a child,” she said.
In good books
In 2016, Child Rights International Network (CRIN) ranked Rwanda 80th globally among the countries that go an extra mile to provide legal assistance to minors.
The network indicated that Rwanda’s ranking on children access to justice is progressive after a series of legal reforms undertaken to conform to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
The report, entitled “Rights, Remedies and Representation,” covered around 197 country reports assessing how effectively children can use courts to defend their rights in case of plausible violations.