Children in Prisons and Detention Centres in Ethiopia: The Way Forward

Summary: This study on children deprived of their liberty is among the first few of its kind in Ethiopia. It identifies the major problems and directions for future action.


One of the unfortunate facts commonly found especially in developing countries is the treatment of children in prisons and detention centres. Imprisoned and detained children often suffer egregious violations of their basic rights. More often than not, the conditions under which they are detained are deplorable and unacceptable.

In the process of the administration of criminal justice, children may be kept in prisons and detention centres, to use common parlance, or "deprived of their liberty" for two reasons. The first involves the case where children are deprived of their liberty as a result of being accused or convicted of committing an offence. The second situation is where babies and young children are detained with their mothers only because their mothers are under investigation or convicted by a court of law. Due to the level of their physical and mental conditions, children deprived of their liberty require special treatment and protection.

The situation of children in prisons and detention centres including those children detained with their mothers is one of the most invisible, under-researched and critical areas that need to be addressed as part of the reform towards the realization of the wellbeing of children who come in contact with the legal system. Hence, this study on the treatment of children in prisons and detention centres in Ethiopia.

The Government of Ethiopia has already undertaken positive initiatives to promote and protect the rights of children in the country. These include: the ratification of the major international instruments concerning children, particularly the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), and the recognition of these treaties as integral parts of the laws of the land in the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Other initiatives are currently underway to put child rights principles into practice through, for example, the establishment of Child Friendly Benches for juvenile offenders and Child Protection Units. These are among the various measures highlighting the commitment of the government towards the rights of children.

This report shows however that much remains to be done to address the problems of detained or imprisoned children and to ensure compliance with international standards. By definition, virtually all children in prisons and detention centres are in a vulnerable condition and therefore need special protection.

This problem is delicate and complex and calls for cooperation among all actors in this area. On our part, we are working and intend to work with federal and regional governments, policy makers, local authorities and community institutions in the implementation of the basic principles relating to the treatment of children in prisons and detention centres. This report is a contribution in that direction. We hope that it would serve as a basis for dialogue and reflection among policy makers and all those concerned with the rights of children in general and of imprisoned and detained children in particular.

This report is by no means comprehensive. But it does serve as a point of departure and helps identify the major problems and directions for future action including: the need to review domestic laws in line with international standards; the need for government to promote the principle that the detention of children should be a last measure and ensure its adoption as a standard practice throughout the country; the imperative of equipping prison authorities with the wherewithal and resources to provide the facilities and services needed to meet their obligations and the need to build, through training and sensitization, the capacity of law enforcement bodies and, in a wider context, the general public to promote and protect the rights and wellbeing of children.

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