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Take toddlers out of prison and devolve justice system
Zimbabwe Unemployed People's Association (ZUPA)
February 10, 2012

The shocking revelations by Zimbabwe's Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs that some 30 toddlers are incarcerated with their mothers in Zimbabwe's squalid prisons calls for urgent remedial intervention.

Deputy Minister Gutu is reported to have said that breastfeeding female prisoners were forced to share crowded cells with their babies and toddlers due to lack of capacity in the Ministry of Social Services to provide a service for these children.

Most readers will recall reports in recent times of how terrible the conditions in Zimbabwean prisons are with no adequate sanitation, hygiene and food.

This column has written about the challenges that our social services have in delivering. Given how difficult it is for Zimbabwe's Government of National Unity (GNU) to collect credible national statistics, I believe Zimbabweans and the international organisation working in child protection should immediately commission an extensive study into what is going on.

Let us as a responsible country establish how many children are kept in these trying prison conditions simple because their mothers are serving sentences. What system is used to identify other relative or foster parents who can provide a service for these children in decent homes? What damage are we as a country doing to these innocent children who are growing up in prisons? Should the Social Services Ministry not be allocating part of the child protection money from the Consolidated Appeals programme to a service for these children?

Part of the solution in the meantime may require that the breastfeeding women prisoners serve their sentences in prisons in their areas of origin to enable relatives to assist. It is called devolution. Zimbabwe is a country in crisis, in which case the communities have to be encouraged to participate in decision making and crafting solutions.

Communities may have solutions Government needs. That is why last week, I called for a national debate and consultation on ritual murders of children which should be done by the Ministry of Social Welfare. We cannot as a country allow failures in child protection.

I now hear that Zimbabwe Minister of Water, Sipepa Nkomo is approaching chiefs in areas where dam construction has been delayed by "mermaids." "We employed whites thinking they will not be affected by the mermaids but even the white people we employed are now saying they will not be going back there," Minister Sipepa is reported to have said.

My Gwanda roots, my Lemba roots and my youth may not qualify me to comment on "mermaids" stopping dam constructions in Mashonaland. I thought mermaids live in water and they should instead call a pool party and celebrate construction of a bigger pond in their area of residence. Something deep down me still tempts me to take this as one of those myths that we are all made to believe. I would rather be a doubting Thomas.

Last week, I also appealed to the Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs to consider recommendation made at the 12th meeting of United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review on Zimbabwe in October 2011, by Brazil, Slovakia, Slovenia and Indonesia among others to establish specialist juvenile justice system and raise the age of criminal responsibility from the current 7 years old to at least 12 years old in line with the Convention of the Right to the Child.

ZUPA has agreed to work on a policy document on how a juvenile justice system can be set up in Zimbabwe. I hope organisations working for the protection of children rights can take on this project to ensure that our children have their rights protected. I am especially interested in ensuring that the children remain continue with quality education while in custody. I would join any campaign for protection of the vulnerable member of our society.

The review of the juvenile justice system or in the case of Zimbabwe, its establishment needs dedicated personnel to make it work. This involves those from education, recreational and development, health services, social services and more importantly magistracy. In June 2010 the Magistracy in Zimbabwe was removed from the responsibility of the Public Service Commission and became a baby of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), following the coming into effect of the Judicial Service Act (chapter 7:18). I am made to understand that the JSC is from April moving a number of magistrates around from one end of the country to the other.

When I raised Minister Sipepa Nkomo's mermaid views, I alluded to the fact that as a Lemba from Gwanda, there are Shona cultural issues I may struggle to understand or accept. A visit to chief Nhlamba in Gwanda would be a walk in the park for me.

The magistracy is for most criminal cases, the first point of entry. I therefore take the view that if the issues of child protection and the ritualistic challenges of some of the crimes are to be handled efficiently by the law, then the magistrate herself or himself must be a member of that community. In the case of breastfeeding mothers, I contend that the issues of bail and mitigation may be easier for one that understands that culture.

The moving and transferring of magistrates should follow devolution. It would be bad for justice if a Venda magistrate is transferred to Murambinda and a Korekore magistrate transferred to Plumtree where they will not understand the culture and the language.

Zimbabwe is in economic crisis. I am left puzzled why we should spend money on interpreters in this country when we have enough magistrates who originate from the areas who can be deployed there. This will also cut on the need to accommodate them and given them these away from home allowances.

I hope the JSC will consider the redeployments they are planning for April. There is enough time to consider these views. It would be a bonus if the JSC and the Ministry of Justice were to undertake an evaluation of the challenges of deploying a Korekore to Plumtree or a Manyika to Gwanda.

While at that, the police may also consider devolving the deployments for the same reasons of language and understanding of the culture. Many crimes are going through the net due to barriers originating from failure to effect this simple and reasonable aspect of devolution.

I am convinced if a police officer is deployed in his area of origin, the likelihood of that officer abusing his powers or the rights of the community are low.

I also hope those in charge of prisons and social services would immediately set in motion, remedial action to take toddlers incarcerated with their mothers out of the prisons in the best interest of the children.

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