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Protecting Child Rights and Building Self-Reliance: How to Change the Life Course of Detained Moroccan Youth

Nicole Luz
HAF-UVa Intern

When people speak of the protection and upliftment of children, those in juvenile detention are often forgotten. In Morocco, children between the ages of 12 and 18 who have committed a transgression of the law are often housed in Child Protection Centers (CPCs). Children who were abandoned, had to be removed from the home due to violence, or are in an otherwise precarious situation may also be court-ordered to reside in CPCs. Living in these centers — detached from society and from a normal childhood — can be difficult for children. It is crucial that detained youth receive the care they need to avoid recidivism and lead full lives as adults.

What are Children’s Rights?

To get at the heart of the problem of youth recidivism, one must start with an understanding of the rights specifically afforded to children in Morocco. In 1993, Morocco ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. All countries who sign it are bound by international law to ensure children’s basic fundamental rights are protected, including the right to “life, survival and development; protection from violence, abuse or neglect; an education that enables children to fulfil their potential; and be raised by, or have a relationship with, their parents”, as long as it does not harm their well-being. In more recent years, Morocco has codified this rights framework in its national laws. Detained children have these same rights, of course, but CPCs have struggled to enforce them to their fullest extent.

Room For Improvement

According to Search for Common Ground, CPCs often lack the organization and resources to ensure that children are in a safe and healthy environment. The centers are reported to have low — or unevenly applied — standards of care for children, whether it be proper nutrition and healthcare, reasonable physical space, or deterrence of violence between youth. When it comes to the third issue, for example, children who have had little to no criminal involvement may be mixed in with children more prone to violence, which can have a negative impact on their socialization and physical safety. CPCs also struggle to provide children with a quality education, often failing to hold them accountable for their studies to be effective. These gaps in education are a massive obstacle to ensuring that youth feel inspired to plan for their futures and can excel in their work as adults. 

Perhaps the most damaging of CPCs’ weaknesses is the lack of psychosocial support given to children. Separation from society and the various traumas that may have led them there can put a huge burden on young people’s mental health and ability to reintegrate post-release. Children in CPCs are also often hurt by a lack of contact with their parents or other trusted adult figures. Parents are essential in encouraging children’s education and development, and they can also be a grounding contact with the outside world. Moreover, for those children who did not have positive role models in the home or are permanently separated from their parents, having someone to provide them with guidance and emotional support can be especially important.

Building Self-Reliance

In an assessment of youth involvement in extremism, the High Atlas Foundation found that a lack of educational opportunities and economic disenfranchisement lead many formerly detained youth, especially young men, to become disillusioned about their futures. These challenges are an outcome of their time in juvenile detention, and when coupled with the associated behavioral issues, lack of role models, and feelings of shame, they may find little incentive to find their place in Moroccan society and thus turn to crime. This is why HAF believes that empowering youth to develop a sense of self and fostering independent skills is the key to reducing recidivism. When youth feel confident in their human potential and have the tools to seek out their goals, they are set up for a brighter future. Although CPCs lack the resources to help youth reintegrate, they have the potential to cooperate with outside actors encouraging self-reliance.

How NGOs Are Helping 

Non-profit organizations like the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) are doing their part to help enrich children’s lives and craft creative solutions to reduce recidivism. In a partnered effort with Association Bayti, HAF has proposed adapting its “Imagine” women’s empowerment workshops to the context of children in CPCs. The initiative’s aim is to empower and strengthen the capacities of detained and at-risk youth toward greater self-reliance and self-confidence. The workshops would last over a span of four days, educating youth on their rights and human potential, as well as helping them process the difficult emotions surrounding personal and relational challenges. This impact carries over into the long-term as the children are guided in creating “life projects”, or essentially goals for achievement and personal growth in various areas of their lives. These projects are sustained by the help of mentors and, when needed, one-on-one psychosocial support that is lacking within CPCs. It is HAF’s hope that they will be able to implement this project in Moroccan CPCs and that other NGOs will consider similar empowerment efforts for youth development. 

Due to the crucial role of parents in reducing youth recidivism, legal family mediation can also prove to be a useful form of assistance from NGOs. HAF’s Clinique Juridique de la Faculté de Droit (CJFD), run in collaboration with the University Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah’s Faculty of Social, Juridical, and Economic Sciences in Fez, offers family mediation within its repertoire of free legal aid services. Funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative, the CJFD  supports the process in which families can dispute financial and child arrangements when going through separation or divorce with the help of a neutral “mediator”. Sometimes, it can even succeed in keeping parents from separating. Mediation has proven beneficial for children’s mental health, as it spares them from the stress of a tense formal legal case and helps preserve a stable living situation with their parents. By limiting children’s exposure to the psychosocial and economic challenges associated with family disputes and separation, mediation can prevent children from having to be removed from their home in the first place or from falling into crime.

HAF has also established two of its widespread tree nurseries at CPCs, which not only provide youth with agricultural training, but foster human development. Programs such as these are proven to provide youth with a sense of purpose in applying tangible, valuable skills and forging a deeper connection with their environment and communities. Not to mention, they replace the idleness common among detained or released but unemployed youth that can so often lead to radicalization or backsliding into crime. Therefore, community-driven agricultural initiatives can reduce rates of recidivism and violent extremism in youth.

It is important that CPCs make an effort to improve their conditions by whatever measure possible to better the outcomes of detained children reentering society. Still, NGOs continue to prove their value in protecting vulnerable communities as they see the potential in troubled youth and turn it into action. When children in CPCs are afforded the rights to education, development, and a full life, they will recognize their potential as well and thrive.

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