Viewpoint by Assefa Bequele and Alex Kamarotos
Children are very much on the political and public agenda in Africa today. The African Union has adopted a charter to protect them and a mechanism to hold governments accountable for the fulfilment of their rights. Even so, the reality on the ground is somber and sobering.

The number of child prisoners in Africa is in the thousands, and may even be as high as 28,000.

Against this background, children’s rights defenders, campaigners, lawyers, academics, journalists, ministers, policy-makers and law-makers are gathering this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the Continental Conference on Access to Justice for Children in Africa.

A new report – “Spotlighting the invisible: Access to Justice for Children in Africa” – reveals how children across the continent are denied access to justice and paints a distressing picture of discrimination, inadequate funding, poor training, unaccountable traditional justice systems and slow progress on children’s rights.

Especially at risk are children with disabilities, children accused of witchcraft, street children, child victims of sexual abuse, children with albinism, children in rural areas, refugees, migrant and asylum-seeking children, trafficked children and orphans.

Unacceptable practices such as corporal punishment and trial by ordeal are still widespread, even in those countries where they are illegal.

The issue of justice for children is by no means only an African problem. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Agency, estimates that worldwide, more than a million children are deprived of their liberty at any one time.

Since the last conference on this subject in Kampala in 2011, most African countries have adopted laws and standards to protect children in the justice system, and some have child-friendly structures such as dedicated courts and law enforcement units. There has also been some progress around alternatives to formal criminal proceedings and new ways of training law enforcement officers.

However, much more needs to be done, observes Assefa Bequele of the African Child Policy Forum. “We cannot wait for tomorrow. We must ensure that the needs of vulnerable groups of children accessing to justice are addressed, and that traditional and religious systems deliver justice that protects all children with no exception. We have to act now!”