As well as aiming to protect children from being forced to fight as soldiers, the 2009 law upped the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18. It means judges can only send child law-breakers to the country’s equivalent of a juvenile detention centre as last resort, and not to prison.
"According to the law, it is absolutely illegal to have children in prison," said Innocent Bugandwa, a legal protection officer for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). "The conditions are like in all prisons in DRC, very precarious, he told the United Nations’ news service, IRIN. “The children don’t usually have health care; the link with the family is cut. They manage to survive there only thanks to donations and charity.”
About 158 children live at Makala prison, in the central African country’s capital, Kinshasa's according to UNICEF. The boys are kept away from adult men, but the girls share cells with adult women. For both, regular meals are rare. “Every morning, you are forced to work,” said former child prisoner, Vincent, 16. “If you don’t, they beat you, pour water on you or lock you in a room. If your friends or parents care to visit you, then maybe you will eat. Otherwise, you don’t eat.”
Since the Democratic Republic of Congo adopted its Law on Child Protection, there have been about seven international special tribunals for children aged 14-17 across the country Some officials claim a lack of cash is stopping the country from enforcing the Law on Child Protection. And in the capital, the tribunal for is temporarily housed in the same building as the Peace Tribunals and the Superior Courts.
Mputa Daudet Ilua, president of the Children’s Tribunal, told IRIN: "The law preceded the infrastructure. Until now we work with basic means. We don’t have our own buildings or even a vehicle to transport the children here to the tribunal."
But others argue the problem is more to do with attitude than cash. "Are you not going to start the process of justice because there is no building? Asked UNICEF’S Aliou Maiga. “Do we need a building or do we need instead someone to work?" he said. "We don’t need to write a huge sign saying 'Tribunal for Children'. We have the minimum and we can have an approach of small steps with small means. Don't tell me the government does not have the resources.”