… a critical need for child justice system in the country

Tshering Palden and Chencho Dema

The police station at Jungshina, North Thimphu is not in an ideal location. The bumpy dusty road to the station makes the journey less comfortable, especially for children. 

However, the station is one of the best in the country in terms of facilities for children who come in conflict with the law. 

The station has a big clean room bedecked with colourful painting, toys, books, and equipped with a television set, refrigerator, and furniture, among others. 

While a little smaller, the police station in South Thimphu also has a similar room, both established with support from UNICEF Bhutan office. The facility acts as a protected interview room where the child survivors, witnesses, and children who come in conflict with the law can be interviewed in a child friendly environment. 

A police official said that children are never detained at the police stations to ensure their well being and also to keep them separate from adult detainees. 

“Our first priority is the wellbeing of children,” said Lieutenant Phub Lham of Jungshina Police Station. 

She keeps a spare casual jacket in her office. “Some of them are nervous when they see us in uniform, so I use the spare jacket to appear less intimidating. It helps,” she said. 

The facility protects the rights of children who come in conflict with the law as enshrined in the Child Care and Protection Act (CCPA), while promoting a child-friendly justice system.

The Royal Bhutan Police has  Woman and Child Protection Units (WCPU) alongside the police stations  to handle cases relating to women and children. Police personnel are also trained on women and child friendly police procedures including the protection of women and children.

RBP, as the key law enforcement agency, is legally duty-bound to protect and promote the rights of women and children. It also is morally obliged to provide fair treatment to women and children, either as survivors or offenders. Such training is a necessary tool for law enforcement officials in the country.  However, Kuensel learnt that training could not be provided as frequently as needed mainly due to shortage of funds. 

Since they lack a facility to shelter children, the police stations divert them, children who land up in their custody, to Nazhoen Lamtoen shelter in consultation with the Pema Secretariat. 

Nazhoen Lamtoen, a CSO, works to build social protection for vulnerable children and strengthen the child justice system, among others. 

Executive Director of Nazhoen Lamtoen, Thinley Tobgyel said that they have been reaching out to help children in conflict with the law and survivors of violence or any other threats across the country. 

The CSO has signed a memorandum of understanding with local government administrations and communities to refer children under such circumstances to the CSO’s representatives. However, there are issues in relocating children across dzongkhags, local government officials said. 

“We provide assistance in terms of education for the children concerned and also their healthcare. We collaborate with the Pema Secretariat and try to reunite them with their families eventually,” he said. 

Bhutan is signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is widely recognised as the first legally binding human right treaty pertaining to a child and sets a clear standard that the rights of a child has to be realised for children to develop to their full potential. 

A child in conflict with the  law refers to a child above 12 years of age, but below 18 years and found to have committed an offence.

Since they don’t have a defined space for children who come in conflict with the law, police stations in the dzongkhags try to provide an appropriate space with whatever they can manage. 

To make the station child-friendly, Superintendent of Wangdue Police division Colonel Sonam Goenzing said that the police personnel handle cases involving children sensitively. . He said that providing compassion and care to the children that come to the station is more essential than the facilities. 

Even if the station doesn’t currently have a defined space, there are plans to establish a child care centre if there are more children in the police campus. He stated that support in terms of  funding and facilities is what he looks forward to from the relevant authorities. 

In a unique initiative, the Punakha Police started a project in 2018 to make the police station child-friendly, for the children of its female employees and women visitors too. For the purpose of relaxation, as the station doesn’t have a dedicated holding room for children, a room has been set aside for female police personnel as well as other female visitors to the station. Some colourful toys are piled in the room’s corner, and the walls are painted with cartoon figures that give the space life. 

Officer-in-Command Lt Colonel Chador Namgay of Punakha police station said, “We are happy that visitors are able to make use of the room especially the children when they visit the police station. If we get some budget then we will be able to make it better.”

Police officials said that the women and child units have been working to improve the situation. Officials urged parents and members of the community to show better care and guide children to avoid coming in conflict with the law. 

The force needs adequate funding to provide separate child-friendly rooms in each of the police stations. Local government officials said that since such activities are funded centrally, they could not help. These challenges are, however, not deterring those managing the women and child protection desks. 

“It is our common responsibility to care for the wellbeing of our children,” said a police official of South Thimphu police station. 

In partnership with UNICEF, Kuensel will publish a series of sto- ries on children’s and young people’s issues as part of the new Country Programme Cycle and emerging priorities.