In the second edition of our ongoing series highlighting the work of our partner organisations worldwide, we spoke with Sara Larios and Kabota Kabwe Chipopola from Undikumbukire Project Zambia. Founded in 2014 in response to a lack of resources in the Zambian criminal justice system, the human rights organisation does brilliant work in providing legal and social assistance to at-risk children.
Thanks very much for speaking with us today, Sara and Kabota. Firstly, can you introduce yourselves with your names, titles, and where you are based?
Kabota: My name is Kabota Kabwe Chipopola, I am a Team Leader at Undikumbukire Project Zambia (UP Zambia) and I am based in Lusaka, Zambia.
Sara: And I am Sara Larios. I am the Founder and Executive Director of UP Zambia and based in Lusaka, Zambia.
Could you tell us a little bit about UP Zambia?
UP Zambia is a human rights organisation that provides legal and social services to children in conflict or at risk of coming into conflict with the law in Zambia, focusing on children from low-income households in high-density peri-urban areas, and children on the move.
Our work began in 2014, when a group of community members in Lusaka began to bring blankets, toiletries and other items to Lusaka Remand Correctional Facility to help meet the physical needs of the children in custody there. Expecting to simply leave the donations, we instead encountered boys who were desperate to interact, asking not to be forgotten. And so Undikumbukire Project Zambia was born. Undikumbukire means “remember me” in Chewa.
Our mission is to support children in conflict with the law through legal representation, social services and advocacy to achieve restorative justice in Zambia.
UP Zambia's Social Support team facilitating a parent support group
Can you describe your current roles at UP Zambia? What are your responsibilities?
Kabota: Currently, I am the Team Leader of the Child Justice Team at UP Zambia, where I supervise and provide overall leadership to a team of Legal Officers, Legal Assistants and Legal Interns tasked with providing legal services to children and young people undergoing criminal proceedings in Lusaka District courts or who are detained in the four Lusaka District Correctional Facilities. I coordinate UP Zambia’s participation in and support of various child rights forums and initiatives while also collaborating with stakeholders on awareness and sensitisation activities. I also develop and implement capacity-building for staff and stakeholders on child rights and procedures, as well as train stakeholders on the minimum guidelines for child victims and witnesses.
Sara: As the Executive Director, I lead the overall strategy and resource mobilisation for the organisation. As we encounter challenges and successes in our casework, I work with the team to develop new activities and programmes and build up partnerships and resources to make them a reality. In addition to my leadership responsibilities, I still like to make time to represent children in court and visit them in correctional facilities.
UP Zambia staff and clients playing football
How did you get into this kind of work?
Kabota: I have over six years of experience as a child rights defender, promoting access to justice for children and vulnerable groups deprived of their liberty. I started this work as a volunteer in 2017 when I heard about the great work UP Zambia was doing with children. I always wanted to work with children, and UP Zambia was the perfect fit because it accorded me the opportunity to use my law degree for a worthy cause.
Sara: I first moved to Zambia in 2009 as a volunteer for International Justice Mission. Soon after arriving, I decided to study to be admitted to the Zambian Bar with the goal of working in human rights law. So many people in the criminal justice system, including children, went to trial without legal representation. Initially, when encountering children in Lusaka’s prisons, I didn’t feel I had the skills to untangle the legal challenges they were facing. I focused first on trying to improve their wellbeing while in custody. But eventually, I felt compelled to learn more about the child justice system and the breakdowns that were leading to prolonged detention. By 2015, I left my job at a corporate firm to try to make a difference in how children were experiencing the court system.
How do you manage the personal pressures and responsibilities of working in this context?
Kabota: I am passionate about children’s rights; therefore, prioritising their liberty and access to justice is very important to me. Knowing that the work I do every day makes a difference in an incarcerated child’s life makes all the pressure and responsibility worth it. Focusing on the small steps every day and celebrating our small successes.
Sara: Honestly, it can be a very heavy and overwhelming burden to carry at times. But seeing positive outcomes in our clients’ cases, and seeing the gradual progress of systems change, keeps me going. We make it a point to celebrate our victories and enjoy working and being together as a team.
UP Zambia staff attorney attending to clients in court
What are the main challenges currently facing UP Zambia?
Kabota: Systemic delay poses the greatest challenge to children in the justice system. Zambian law recognises children as a vulnerable group and rightly seeks to protect them with extra procedures and oversight when they come in conflict with the law. However, while these procedures are designed to protect children, they can ultimately result in confusion and delays—sometimes measured in years, not weeks or months.
Sara: Now is a good time to be working in Zambia in Child Justice. With new progressive legislation put in place last year, the opportunities to make a difference in systems change and in individual cases are endless. There is a high demand for UP Zambia’s services across the country, but the need is greater than our current financial and human resources can meet. Scaling is a big challenge we need to take on.
In your view, what needs to be done in order for meaningful change to happen within the Zambian justice system?
Kabota: To bring about meaningful change within the Zambian justice system, we need to strengthen its efficiency and improve access to justice for all. Access to justice is especially crucial for vulnerable groups such as children and persons with disabilities. Therefore, it is essential to break down barriers and defeat systemic delay at all stages of the justice process.
Sara: What will bring a significant change to Zambia’s child justice system is government actors making serious efforts to implement the new Children’s Code Act (more information on this here). UP Zambia is committed to taking up every opportunity to work alongside law enforcement and adjudicators to make this law work in the real world.