Analysis Opinion

Africa: a regional campaign to decriminalise petty offences

Louise Edwards, Director of Research and Programmes at the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum, based in Cape Town, South Africa, reflects on the works and challenges of the Regional Campaign to Decriminalise Petty Offences.

ICPR and Prison Insider asked several experts worldwide to share their insights in the framework of the project Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment in 10 countries. Read Louise Edwards’ insights.


In March 2015, a street vendor named Mayeso Gwanda was arrested on his way to work in Malawi for being a “rogue and vagabond”. He was one of thousands of people a day across Africa to be affected by the enforcement of petty offences – archaic, colonial-era laws that are deliberately broad in scope and which criminalise the performance of life sustaining activities in public spaces. With support from the Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), and the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), Mr. Gwanda successfully challenged the constitutionality of the rogue and vagabond law – a decision that not only changed the law in Malawi, but had a ripple effect across the rest of Africa.

The organisations are founding members of the Regional Campaign to Decriminalise Petty Offences in Africa, which started with support from the Open Society Foundations in 2014 and currently comprises 36 members working to end the criminalisation of poverty through the decriminalisation of petty offences.

Criminalisation has the effect of entrenching discrimination and social exclusion.

The Principles call on African States to decriminalise and declassify these offences, and to address rather than punish the underlying causes of poverty and marginalisation.

There is a need to fast track legal reforms to decriminalise petty offences

"The campaign to decriminalise petty offences…remains a slow, circuitous road, with fluctuating political will"

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Louise Edwards

African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum

Louise Edwards is the Director of Research and Programmes at the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum, based in Cape Town, South Africa. APCOF is a founding member of the Regional Campaign to Decriminalise Petty Offences, and Louise led the provision of technical support to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for the development of the Principles on the Decriminalisation of Petty Offences, and their Simplified Versions. Her work now focuses on promoting the visibility and implementation of the Principles, particularly by regional and national police organisations and their oversight stakeholders. Here, Louise reflects on the Campaign’s work and its challenges.

About the project

Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment in ten countries

This project has been led by the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR). In selecting the ten jurisdictions included in the study, ICPR has worked with over fifty NGOs and practitioner organisations involved in criminal justice reform. ICPR partnered with Prison Insider in the latter stages of the project to shed light on key aspects of the research. Both organisations collected experts’ insights and facilitated the conversation around the most saliant themes covered by the research. The project focuses on five themes that can be found in the drop down menu.
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