Harare — Simon Dube*, 15, has just been released from a Zimbabwean jail after serving a three-month sentence for theft. After his arrest he was detained for two days in a holding cell in Harare, where he alleged police assaulted him to extract a confession that he stole goods from his neighbour's home.
Dube's mother, who declined to be identified, told IRIN that after her son's return from jail he had become withdrawn, has frequent temper tantrums, as well as a persistent cough and symptoms of scurvy.
"He suffers frequent nightmares and often wakes up crying. He doesn't tell us much about his experiences in jail but it is easy to see that he went through a tough time," she said.
Dube was remanded in custody for seven weeks prior to his trial.
Dzimbabwe Chimbga, programme manager of local NGO Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), said juveniles were jailed for numerous crimes, including armed robbery, theft, fraud, rape and murder, but his organization was "alarmed that the minors are lumped up with hard core criminals in cramped conditions" while awaiting trial, sometimes for six months.
"Zimbabwe has no policy of separating the juveniles, whether they are awaiting trial or have been convicted, and this trend is pervasive throughout the country. It is a fundamental human rights violation as it subjects them to sexual, physical, psychological and emotional abuse, not to mention the fact that the health and food situations are horrible," he said.
Chimbga said ZLHR had received an acknowledgment from the Justice Ministry that there was a need to establish a detention facility specifically for juvenile offenders.
"Existing infrastructure in our prisons is not conducive for juveniles and female prisoners with children," said prisons commissioner Paradzai Zimondi during a tour of prisons in 2010.
Official figures on juveniles serving jail terms are not available.
Struggling to survive
"While we have not carried out a survey to ascertain the trend of juvenile crime, I would not quarrel with the fact that Zimbabwe is currently grappling with one of the highest unemployment rates, and many families are struggling to generate income, a situation that is driving children to fend for themselves and family members through criminal activities," said Chimbga.
It is now generally accepted that young people commit offences due to the harsh socio-economic circumstances that are currently prevailing
Caleb Mutandwa, programmes director of the local NGO Justice for Children Trust (JCT), told IRIN: "There has been an increase in juvenile crimes as seen by the number of cases we receive. It is now generally accepted that young people commit offences due to the harsh socio-economic circumstances that are currently prevailing."
Mutandwa said his organization was piloting a programme called the "pre-trial diversion programme", to assist in the rehabilitation of young offenders, but it was currently only available to youths who had not committed serious offences.
The aim, he said, was to "provide offenders with the opportunity to re-think their lives without going through the stigmatizing and unnerving criminal justice system." The programme included counselling, voluntary compensation for their victims and meetings with them, as well as cautions by the police and influential community members.
*not his real name
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]