This Life NGO marks World Children’s Day with a call to accelerate juvenile justice reform in Cambodia

‘Deprivation of liberty means deprivation of rights, agency, visibility, opportunities, and love. Depriving children of liberty is depriving them of their childhood.’ The United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty.

World Children’s Day on 20 November is an opportunity to promote and celebrate children’s rights, and to recognise the challenges which remain in building a better future for every child. Above all, it is a day to listen to the voices of children and hear about the issues that matter most to them. This must include the voices of children who are, or have been, in conflict with the law.

Cambodia has made slow, but significant advances in juvenile justice over recent years. The Cambodian Law on Juvenile Justice was adopted in 2016, illustrating the fundamental principle that detention should be a last resort for children. The Juvenile Justice Strategic and Operational Plan published in 2018 was established to ‘help develop a solid and sustainable modern juvenile justice system that focuses on diversion and restorative justice as the main course of action – rather than punishment.’ 

These developments are clearly welcomed. Yet, on the ground, there has been little real progress. In fact, the number of children in prison almost tripled in the three years after the Juvenile Justice law was passed, with the majority of convictions relating to drug use, drug trafficking, and theft. At the end of 2019, 53% of all children and 77% of girls were in prison for drug-related crimes. Overall, children make up approximately 4.5% of the total prison population in Cambodia, but Siem Reap has a significantly higher rate of child prisoners than any other province, with children making up nearly 13% of the prison population.

This Life recently conducted extensive research into the current status of the implementation of Juvenile Justice Law in Siem Reap province, gathering the views and experiences of children in conflict with the law, community representatives, police and judicial officials. This included surveys or interviews with nearly 100 children, currently in prison or recently released, including 16 girls, to learn about their backgrounds and experiences, understand how imprisonment impacted them, and gather their opinions on alternatives to prison. 

The research results demonstrate solid support across all stakeholders for diversionary measures and alternatives to prison for children in conflict with the law, with judicial and law enforcement officials keen to implement the juvenile justice law as soon as possible, and community members overwhelmingly in favour of non-custodial measures for children. Significantly, only 13% of community respondents thought that children who commit non-violent crimes should be sent to prison, and the majority thought that education or vocational training orders would be the best alternative to prison for children.

The experiences and views of children in conflict with the law also indicate that a smooth transition to diversion and alternative sentencing for children is within reach, particularly if local NGOs can play a supporting role. Of all the children surveyed, 89%, including all the girls, had never been to prison before, and the vast majority appeared to have enough stability and security in their family lives to support diversion and community-based alternatives to prison. Many of the children were either in employment, training or still in education at the time of their arrest and the majority indicated that they would be keen to participate in community programs to prevent them from committing a crime in the future. 

This LIfe’s research findings confirm that the main impediment to implementing the Juvenile Justice Law is not resistance towards and misperception about alternative measures, but a lack of effective coordination and commitment amongst all stakeholders, and a lack of clear directives and budgetary allocation from authorities. Unfortunately, it would appear that, without the support of local NGOs, it could be a very long time before there is a significant decrease in the numbers of children being sent to prison. In the meantime, children in prison in Cambodia remain at serious risk of abuse and have little protection against the adverse effects of imprisonment, including on their physical and mental health.

This Life has been working with children in conflict with the law for many years, aiding their rehabilitation and reintegration into society and offering the prospect of a brighter future. The reoffending rate amongst the children we work with sits at just 2% within the first 6 months after release from prison, and 4% in total. Yet, we know that much more is possible. 

Like our survey and interview participants, we want to see a future Cambodia in which children are not deprived of their liberty.  A future where they have a chance to turn their lives around without recourse to prison. A future where childhood matters. To achieve this, This Life is ready to work with authorities, families, communities, and children to support the accelerated implementation of the juvenile justice law in Siem Reap province and beyond. Together we can achieve this and together we can celebrate a better future for every child.

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