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The Big Interview: Upclose with Sudha Murali

Ms. Sudha Murali, the former Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF Uganda Country Office (PHOTO: Edgar Kuhimbisa / JLOS) Ms. Sudha Murali, the former Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF Uganda Country Office (PHOTO: Edgar Kuhimbisa / JLOS)


In early May 2016, Ms. Sudha Murali, the former child protection specialist at UNICEF (Uganda Country Office) retired from Service. Ms. Murali has been an ardent champion of children’s rights and was at the foreforent of implementing the Justice for Children Program (J4C) in partnership with the Justice, Law and Order Sector. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. sat down with Sudha for an exclusive interview regarding her stellar career and the future of justice for children in Uganda.


What led to your interest in child protection work and working with UNICEF? How would you describe yourself and your role on the J4C program? 

My background and interest in social work and human rights was in a way ingrained as I had completed my masters in Sociology and had been inspired by my two my teachers who were brilliant and incisive in encouraging students to go beyond the syllabi and get involved. I joined a study circle on women’s studies during my Masters and the discrimination of gender, social stratification and class made me conscious of my own relatively privileged background. My parents were also a strong influence with their values and learning, especially my mother who was a post graduate in Economics as early as 1935 when most women globally did not have equal opportunities! 

I started working with fishermen communities and youth on survival issues along the coast of southern India strengthening community disaster preparedness including awareness on alternatives to pesticides which was poisoning the environment and driving the farmers to indebtedness and suicides.

I also saw that although women did most of the work in agriculture they were not recognized as farmers in their own right and had little or no access to credit. They were not paid minimum wages and were often discriminated although they did most of the same tasks as men did and if they were women from the lower castes in India they were socially discriminated and exploited. 

I joined an organization that was empowering Dalit (the lowest caste in India) to upgrade their agricultural skills, be aware of their rights and speak up to participate in the development process. 

I think this has been one of the high points in  my life as I learnt so much from community women, their struggles to raise their families, cope with migration of husbands in search of work, wanting a better life for their children and balancing endless demands from the families who took all what they did for granted .. 

It was amazing to see the solidarity emerge and as the women’s groups collectively took up dry land farming and negotiating for better conditions, access to bank credit, training and upgrading technical skills that helped them to evolve as managers and not just landless labourers by the system .. Seeing them emerge as confident women and address discrimination was the biggest learning experience for me…. . 

Robert Chambers the pioneer of Participatory Rural appraisal (PRA ) as it was called then came to India and his first PRA was in one of the villages where we had started interventions.I met Robert Chambers at IDS UK after 20 years and we relived the excitement of that exercise!

At this point of time UNICEF had asked us to undertake a PRA on assessment of education needs for children and the social factors that governed learning including the child labour issue and the caste dimension. It seemed to make sense to then join UNICEF which offered a vision of the CRC and a canvas that was large enough to influence systems. I also had the advantage of knowing the impact of systems first hand at the actual user level and was able to advocate on the specifics that the system needed to change. In the meantime thanks to a recommendation by one of India’s leading jurists Justice Krishna Iyer I had a chance to go to  the Institute of social Studies at the Hague and got a teaching certificate in Law social justice and Human rights. I also completed my post-graduation diploma in Human rights .

My work on child protection has spanned almost 23 years in UNICEF and working on having an integrated institutionalized approach to addressing issues than ad hoc solutions which were temporary and fizzled out once the funds ran out. Development of legislative standards, capacity building, budget provision, human resources planning, monitoring mechanisms are key to systems strengthening.

I was lucky to work with a great network of people across the country, people who shared knowledge information and put the issue above individual credit and focus…. 

UNICEF backed me completely although there were no tried and tested remedies at that point in time. .. The work  on community based prevention of trafficking with coordination from police, courts, ministries of women and child development, income generation  were held up as Best Practices internationally at the World Congress in Brazil.  

My interest in child justice issues stemmed from the fact that while reviewing legislation on trafficking, child labour, children in detention across south and south east Asia the lack of child specific standards were a big challenge.. The critical component of child sensitive justice standards was missing and most people looked at children as ‘mini adults”. 

The awareness on the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the obligations to domesticate national legislation, the allocation of resources both human and financial were the key components that UNICEF focused on. 

Coming to Uganda in April 2012 I was very excited and also impressed with the conceptual clarity on many child protection issues as well as the JLOS sector approach which is indeed a pioneering step well appreciated both in Africa and beyond .What was a challenge was the gap between conceptual clarity and implementation!  The J4C intervention was launched by JLOS in partnership  the Centre for justice studies and innovations in May 2012. I was lucky to have the privilege of seeing the programme evolve  and integrate into the key institutions like judiciary, prosecution, police and probation which is indeed very satisfying!


When did you start working in Uganda and do you remember how your first week went?  What past experiences supported or informed your work on child justice in Uganda?

My first week was very interesting and informative. I was at the Commonwealth Judges Conference which Uganda was hosting along with the Chief of Child Protection and UNICEF was asked to make a presentation on Justice For children. I recall working very hard on the presentation!! This was followed by my attending the JLOS Programme review at Munyono. I was feeling quite lost as I hardly knew anybody then. Little did I anticipate that I would leave Uganda as part of the JLOS family! My work with law enforcement, legislative standards coupled with a familiarity of how systems work as well as my training and background in Human Rights helped me to navigate the issues on Justice for children in Uganda relatively quickly as I had worked with governments in South Asia (India, Sri Lanka ) and partly in Thailand as a NGO and understood their strength as well as their complexity well . I also strongly believe that the best experience and knowledge is within the system. The only thing is we need to tap it !


What are the similarities and differences between Uganda and other contexts where you have worked? 

Systems are pretty much similar, and Commonwealth countries have basically similar legislative and administrative structures. The biggest challenges across countries is to make the governments see the value in investing in children and child justice issues neither trivializing nor dramatizing them. Governments have many constituencies to answer to and making Children visible on their agenda is not always easy .Coordination among institutions, understanding that an integrated approach does not undermine individual institutions and actually optimizes results are the common thread across .

In Uganda I was impressed by the accessibility and the involvement decision makers whether at High court, Uganda Police, DPP, Gender-, JLOS Secretariat   the openness with which we were able to discuss relatively sensitive issues of defilement, children in detention, backlog of cases, was very encouraging. 


In your view what are the three main successes of the J4C programme?

It is difficult to really call anything a success so soon in terms of institution building! In my view the acceptance and integration of the Justice For children issue into the mainstream justice system is a good augury given the fact that Uganda now has almost 20 million children under 18 and it is good that we prepare to deal with this demographic within the justice sector. The issue of reform across the sector and its implications for children this was very exciting. The analysis and review of the work flow process led by JLOS was very challenging it had to have the individual institutions dealing with children in the justice process review, identify gaps and recommend changes which were then approved by the highest authority – the Chief Justice . This now becomes the basis for the costing of the child justice process leading to better planning and integrated way of working.  


What are the upcoming challenges? 

The challenge of children in remand, the process of developing diversion standards, bridging the gap between  probation and courts by piloting innovations in Naguru Remand Home , the piloting of the victim and witness protection measures in four of the eight  High Court circuits agreed to are very exciting and momentous changes that are in place . The joint training of CID/CFPU/DPP officers to address issues of VAC in a coordinated manner were some key milestones

The J4C coordinators and the catalyst action is increasingly being recognized as an important ingredient towards speedy disposal and preventing children from entering the formal justice sector.

Upcoming challenges include consolidation of the ongoing interventions, ensuring court practices become child friendly, separation of probation from welfare services to ensure qualitative rehabilitation and reintegration of children embracing technology and thinking out of the box to address systemic gaps than wait for lengthy administrative processes – why not have video links to review cases? Data management on children’s issues both civil and criminal issues (adoption, inheritance, gender issues), strengthening of family courts are very critical. Emerging issues like child online abuse need to be addressed

The links between informal and formal justice systems needs to be strengthened and need to formalize the Fit persons and Fit institutions aspects in the Child act are crucial.


Future Plans and parting thoughts

I am grateful that I had an opportunity to work with individuals and institutions who were very open and supportive and most importantly worked together with UNICEF as a team in making things better for children. With the commitment, ownership and vision provided so far by the JLOS sector I am confident that Uganda will continue to innovate and implement a very successful J4C programme.


Published: May 28, 2016  | Check out more JLOS exclusive interviews HERE


Reprinting or republication of this article on websites or any other content platforms is authorized by prominently displaying the following sentence, including the hyperlink to the JLOS Website, at the beginning or end of the page: The Big Interview: Upclose with Sudha Murali is republished with permission of Uganda's Justice, Law and Order Sector."