Afghanistan: UNICEF works with govt. to protect children facing juvenile justice

Monday, September 17, 2012
[PHOTO: UNifeed] 
Kabul: When Suraiya was six years old, her elder brother eloped with a girl, thus causing a lot of trouble for her family. In an attempt to buy peace, Suraiya's parents handed her over to that girl's family.

For the next four years, Suraiya was treated like a slave. She was kicked and thrashed nearly every day and made to do heavy household chores. The family used knives, sticks and iron rods to beat her. Suraiya, now 14 years old, still shivers at the thought of the four years she spent with the family while her parents turned a blind eye.

Scars on the young girl's body are evidence of the atrocities committed on her.

Suraiya finally escaped, only to find herself locked behind bars for begging shortly after. She then spent another four years moving between a juvenile rehabilitation center, a government run shelter for children and finally an orphanage where she met a social worker who helped her to locate her family.

The social worker, trained and supported by UNICEF, counselled Suraiya for hours every day, and through her network managed to locate the teenager's family. The young girl refused to go back to her parents and is now reunited with her aunt. Here she feels safe and protected and has started to pick up pieces of her life again.

"I was so badly ill-treated and physically abused that it has had an impact on my mental stability. I get severe headaches and am undergoing medical treatment. I am so happy to be out of that house," says Suraiya.

Suraiya's is not a unique story. Many young girls in Afghanistan share the same fate of being traded by warring families to settle disputes. Known as "Baad" this traditional practice has left many young girls scarred for life.

Daughters are given away to other families to settle debts or as a gesture of peace in case of disputes between two families. Many of these girls experience violence and abuse at the hands of those who receive them.

Rahila, Suraiya's aunt and caretaker, says, "This is a terrible practice and should be ended, no  girl should suffer because of others actions. Every girl has the right to a good life."

Suraiya was reunited with her family after being away for nearly four years, but there are many other children who are not so lucky.

They roam the streets of Afghanistan, some indulging in petty thefts, many ending up in juvenile rehabilitation centers.

These children are left to fend for themselves. With no family or legal support to protect them they often experience terrible violence, exploitation and abuse. UNICEF and its partners work to help these children reunite with their parents when possible by providing reintegration programs, including legal assistance, and to recover from the trauma through psychosocial support.

Once reintegrated with their families, these children stand a good chance of leading a normal life - away from the physical and verbal abuse that they have faced.

Since 2010, 500 children in juvenile rehabilitation centers and detained by police across Afghanistan have been released from detention and have successfully reintegrated into their communities. Most of these have been accused of committing minor offenses and with the timely intervention of social support groups such as the social workers, these children are now back with their families.

But a lot more needs to be done. In 2008, more than 12,000 children were living in orphanages, many of whom have families outside.  There are still more than 800 children in juvenile centers across Afghanistan.

UNICEF is also supporting the Ministry of Interior Affairs and National Police in developing a framework in which children accused of minor offenses are not put behind bars, rather are counselled by social workers, police and prosecutors and sent back to their families. This ensures that children do not face humiliation and abuse in detention centers.

"UNICEF together with the government of Afghanistan and its implementing partners has been working to create qualified professional workers specialising in the protection of vulnerable children. This so that many more children like Suraiya can be reintegrated into their families and communities and live in a protected environment," informs Micaela Pasini, Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF Afghanistan.

Back at home, Suraiya is set to start her life all over again, this time with her loving aunt and a family who have taken Suraiya under their wings. The teenager is relieved - but the painful memories still remain. -UNifeed
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