Children are the unseen victims of the death penalty

Thursday October 10 2019


By Alison Chartres and John Muturi

Every year, people across the world mark important dates on the international calendar.  Some of these days are to celebrate events and some are days to reflect and remember. Other days shine light on the need to change attitudes and laws where these are unfair, degrading and inhumane.

The World Day Against the Death Penalty on 10 October is one such day.  This year, the World Day Against the Death Penalty’s focus is on the unseen victims of the death penalty; children whose parents have been sentenced to death or have been executed.

The ritual of execution, including the cycles of hope and disappointment associated with the lengthy appeals and review process, expose the children of the accused to extraordinary levels of stress and psychological trauma that can have a long-term impact well into adulthood.

With the exception of Rwanda and Burundi, members of the East African Community still retain the death penalty for major crimes such as murder and armed robbery.

While no executions have been carried out in recent years, the courts continue to hand down death sentences, and their impact – both on the accused and the child – are still felt.

Apart from psychological and emotional torture, children whose parents are on death row are likely to lack basic needs and caregivers.


 The situation can be made even worse if it is the mother who is on death row. Without a caregiver, facing stigmatization, and weighed down by the thought of their parent being sentenced to death or awaiting to be executed by the state, these children are likely to turn to crime and drugs.

The effects of the death penalty on children can be even more severe when the victim of the alleged crime is a partner. In this instance, the child is affected by both the crime and the conviction. Where an execution is carried out, the child is rendered an orphan by the state.

It is logical to argue that the death penalty contravenes a number of sections of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and members of the East African Community are party to this widely ratified human rights instrument.

This Convention guarantees every child the right to freedom from violence, the right to special protection and assistance when actions by the state causes a child to be deprived of his or her family environment, and the right to an adequate standard of living for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.

There is clearly a need to understand the full impacts and consequences that a parent’s death sentence has on the child in order to provide the special care and protection that he or she may need.

 This will also help to identify interventions, assistance or policy changes that could prevent and/or mitigate their suffering.

We note the progress in law and policy across East Africa to limit the application of the death penalty, particularly in Kenya and Uganda.  However, only the abolition of the death penalty in all cases and in all countries will bring humanity and fairness, including for the innocent children who also suffer from this brutal and degrading action.   


The writers are the Australian High Commissioner to Tanzania and African Prisons Project Legal Aid Manager respectively .