Children, Victims and Gender in the Criminal Justice System

It is important to ensure that the human rights of vulnerable groups that may be subject to marginalization, such as women, children, minorities, refugees, and displaced persons, are addressed in the context of crime prevention and criminal justice reform. The United Nations is responsible for establishing the rule of law on the basis of equality, with particular attention to gender equality and to the rights and vulnerabilities specific to children.

Justice for Children

The goal of the justice for children approach is to ensure that children, defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child as all persons under the age of eighteen, are better served and protected by justice systems, including the security and social welfare sectors. It specifically aims to ensure the full application of international norms and standards for all children who come into contact with justice systems as victims, witnesses and alleged offenders, or for other reasons where judicial, state administrative or non-state adjudicatory intervention is needed, for example regarding care, custody or protection.

Children in conflict with the law

The number of children deprived of liberty as a result of conflict with the law is estimated to be at least one million worldwide. In countries that do not fully understand the unique situation and vulnerabilities of children, children in conflict with the law are treated similarly to adults. Both adult criminal justice systems and juvenile justice systems may frequently use deprivation of liberty as the primary sentencing option. Both may also fail to consider the needs and best interests of the child and address the root causes that bring them into conflict with the law. Indeed, whilst a country may implement specialised procedures for children in conflict with the law, an effective juvenile justice system requires that the varying needs of children be assessed, that children in conflict with the law are referred to appropriate services, and that they are offered care and assistance with reintegration into the community. Moreover, a juvenile justice system should embody a child-friendly environment, using appropriate language and the minimum possible use of physical restraints.

Once in contact with a justice system that is unresponsive to children's needs, children deprived of liberty are at a heightened risk of abuse, violence, exploitation, and health related concerns, such as injury and HIV/AIDS infection. They also risk becoming further isolated from society, particularly where children's welfare, education, and reintegration are not fully promoted within the formal justice system.

Child victims and witnesses

Millions of children throughout the world suffer harm as a result of crime and abuse of power, and as a result, come into contact with the criminal justice system. The vulnerabilities of children in criminal justice processes, due to their age and still developing levels of maturity, require that special measures be taken to ensure their rights are adequately protected.


UNODC offers assistance in:

  • Conducting technical assistance needs assessments in the area of child justice reform;
  • Providing legal assistance and legal advisory services to review legislative and regulatory frameworks, identify gaps and recommend action to comply with the requirements of the international legal framework in the area of justice for children;
  • Conducting research and analysis in relation to children in contact with the law, as a basis for the development of prison reform strategies and policies;
  • Developing national and local professional capacities and skills relevant to child justice reform;
  • Providing advisory services and technical input to design, implement and monitor child justice reform strategies and action plans at national and local levels;
  • Developing communication strategies, public information and education programmes to raise awareness on the rights of children in contact with the law (victims, witnesses, and alleged offenders);
  • Training law enforcement and justice officials in child-sensitive intervention techniques.

For more specific information on justice for children, please follow the links below:

Relevant international legal framework on justice for children:

The following instruments, although not exclusively applicable to children, are of direct relevance to issues related to child justice:

Reports of the Secretary General:

Other Relevant Information:

Support and Assistance to Victims

A fair, effective and efficient criminal justice system is a system that respects the fundamental rights of victims, suspects, and offenders. It focuses on the need to prevent victimization, to protect and assist victims, to treat them with compassion, and to respect their dignity. Victims should also have access to judicial and other mechanisms, to seek prompt redress for harm they have suffered. Additionally, victims should have access to specialized assistance in dealing with any emotional trauma and other problems caused as a result of victimization.

Crime takes an enormous physical, financial, and emotional toll on victims. However, in many criminal justice systems, victims of crime are often forgotten and sometimes even re-victimized by the system itself. They are rarely allowed to fully participate in decisions that concern them and do not always receive the assistance, support, and protection they need. Redress for the harm they have suffered as a result of victimization is often not available and, when it is, it is too often insufficient or comes too late.


UNODC offers assistance in:

  • Reviewing and enhancing the legal framework and how it addresses the rights of victims;
  • Developing national policies with respect to victim assistance, victim protection, and witness protection;
  • Developing the capacity of existing institutions and agencies to offer victim assistance services;
  • Conducting victimization surveys to understand existing victimization patterns and monitoring the experiences of victims who come into contact with justice systems.

For more detailed information on victims and witnesses, please see:

Gender in the Criminal Justice System

Gender-based discrimination in the criminal justice system creates significant obstacles to achieve access to justice for all. This problem disproportionately affects women, who face still face significant barriers in accessing justice, whether they are victims, witnesses, alleged offenders or prisoners. Criminal justice systems tend to focus on the needs of a predominantly male population of offenders and prisoners, although the global number of women in prison is growing at a faster rate.  

The key challenges range from discriminatory criminal laws and procedures and a lack of gender diversity among criminal justice professionals, to gender bias, stereotyping, stigma and impunity. To effectively address gender-based discrimination against women in conflict with the law, a comprehensive set of targeted interventions are needed to address the obstacles women face throughout the criminal justice chain, in line with the Bangkok Rules and related international standards and norms.   

Our Services  

  • Promoting gender-responsive non-custodial measures to reduce the unnecessary imprisonment of women through legal reform, capacity building training and awareness-raising;  

  • Strengthening women's access to legal aid though legal and policy advice, capacity building for legal aid institutions and service providers, as well as legal empowerment for women in the community; 

  • Supporting prison administrations to provide for the distinctive needs of women in prison, in order to eliminate discrimination and achieve substantive gender equality, through policy reform, training and social reintegration programmes; 

  • Promoting the equal representation of women in criminal justice institutions, particularly in positions of authority, through policy advice and mentoring. 


Our Work 

Learn more 

Gender-based discrimination in the criminal justice system is not limited to women. 


See also the Tools and publications page for further information regarding the abovementioned issues on children, victims, and women's issues.