The plight of Kampala street children

Thursday August 22 2019

Survival. Street children beg on  Kampala Road

Survival. Street children beg on Kampala Road on May 23. PHOTO BY MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI 

By Amos Ngwomoya

A group of street children sits pensively at the verandah of Mukwano Shopping Mall on Kyaggwe Road. They regularly steal glances from either sides of the road, perhaps to look out for a possible swoop by city authorities.

It is 8pm and the streets are buzzing with activity and heavy traffic. I keenly observe five youngsters carrying old sacks, which I later learn are used as beddings during the night.

When I approach them, they hesitate to talk to me. After revealing my identity, they open up.
David Akampurira, 16, is an orphan and the eldest child of the five street children we met at Mukwano mall. He describes his four-year life on the city streets as a rollercoaster of emotions, saying he and his colleagues are always involved in running battles with city authorities.

“We are always roaming from place to place to seek accommodation because authorities don’t want to see us [on the streets]. At times they find us sleeping in the night and beat us, saying that we are not supposed to sleep on city verandahs. This makes our life hard,” he says while displaying bruises on his body which he alleges are a result of several beatings.

Akampurira’s ordeal is shared by a host of other street children whom we interacted with on Kampala streets.
Some of the street children have lost hope of reuniting with their families because they were born on the streets and abandoned by their parents in Kampala.

Majority of street children interviewed by this newspaper claim that motorists often beat them up, mistaking them for robbers of car parts while others hurl insults at them whenever they ask for food or money.

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“One day a man found me seated next to where his car was parked along Wilson Road and he started beating me, accusing me of being a thug. My plea fell on deaf ears and I was only rescued by passersby who pleaded with the man to let me go,” recounts 13-year-old Richard Okello.

Okello told us that he lives with his mother in Katwe and although he would love to go to school, his mother, who is the sole breadwinner for four children, cannot afford to foot his school bills. He does not know about the whereabouts of their father.

While some street children, especially from Karamoja sub-region, were pushed to city streets by poverty, others, especially those born in Kampala, found themselves on the streets because of domestic violence or loss of parents.

While government through the ministry of Gender has stepped up efforts to evict all children from city streets and take them to rehabilitation centres, majority of them are not willing to leave and thus end up in city slums.
Violence on streets
Findings from the recent enumeration of street children by Retrak Uganda in collaboration with the Gender ministry and Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) show that there are more than 2,600 children living on streets aged 7-17 years while 1,410 children aged 7-17 years are estimated to be working on streets.

I visited different parts of the city to understand the plight of the street children. Their stories are diverse and sad; tales of despair, and misery and occasional hope.
Some of these youngsters were abandoned on streets while still toddlers by their parents and have since beaten the odds to make ends meet.

At dawn, they start the day with great expectations. However, their main worry is violence which they say is both physical and sexual.

Kisenyi slum in Kampala Central Division is home to many disadvantaged families with majority of children living on streets.

Most of these children do menial jobs to eke a living. However, they say their employers exploit them by giving them heavy workload with paltry pay and when they protest, they are allegedly beaten up.

“I used to collect water for some restaurants in Kisenyi but I was always paid little money. For instance, I could collect 10 jerrycans of water but end up being paid only Shs500. Most of the people we work for give us little money because they know that we are very desperate,” says Roy Kalyango.

The 12-year-old claims he endured several beatings from her former employer who accused him of asking for a lot of money.

Ms Salmat Nannyombi, who runs a restaurant on Musajja Alumbwa Road in Kisenyi, however, gives a different perspective.

She claims that when street children are offered jobs, they instead start stealing, which forces some employers to beat them up.

“They come looking for jobs but instead turn out to be thieves. When you bring on board one of them, he alerts his colleagues and before you know it, your stuff start disappearing. That’s why many people beat them up,” she says.

Some of the children told us that their parents ask them to remit specified amounts of money to them every day and if they fail to raise the money on a bad day, they are beaten up.

We were, however, unable to corroborate this claim since the mothers we found on the streets declined to speak to us.

We also established that there are brothels in Kakajo, Kisenyi, where some of the street female children are sexually abused.

Our attempts to gain access to the brothels were prevented by well-built men whom we were told broker deals to look for girls and bring them to the brothels.

The residents we interviewed confirmed that most girls who are taken into these brothels are underage and presumed to be street children.

“We have raised this matter with authorities but they are yet to take action. Our demand has always been that all brothels in Kisenyi be demolished because children are getting spoilt. Besides, these structures were illegally erected because owners don’t have approved plans from KCCA,” says Mr Simon Peter Olengeje, the male councillor for Kisenyi II Parish.

Such sexual exploitation and abuse, residents say, has increased the rate of prostitution in the area and is likely to increase the HIV/Aids scourge among children in the city.

Kampala Central Division Mayor Charles Musoke Sserunjogi says he and his team have resolved to crack down on brothels in the city to mitigate acts of prostitutions, especially among teenagers.

“Kisenyi leaders have been crying out to me to find a way to get rid of brothels because children are getting spoilt. I will ensure that we make an operation with police to demolish the said makeshift houses which have become dens of prostitution,” he says.

The Napak District Woman MP, Ms Namoe Stella Nyomera, however faults KCCA and security agencies for failure to apprehend those who violate street children. She also wonders why the city authorities don’t close brothels in city suburbs yet there are reports that girls from streets are sexually abused in such places.

“Besides, the way KCCA and police arrests these street children is very inhuman. We need to have a human face while rescuing these children from streets because when we befriend them, they can even give us key information which can help us in rehabilitating them,” she says.
Study on street children

Last year, a study released by AfriChild Centre Uganda, a research centre, found out that some police officers and KCCA law enforcers were sexually harassing city street girls.

Titled “Violence against children outside of family care in Kampala and its periphery”, the study was carried out in 2016 to assess how, why and where violence against children such as those engaged in domestic work and on the street, occurs.

The study targeted children between the age of 5-8 years and 9-17 years. The findings also indicate that physical violence was established as one of the most common forms of violence against children both inside and outside of their households.

Additionally, law enforcement authorities were found to be major perpetrators of violence against children on Kampala streets.

The study documents how street children were harassed, brutally beaten by KCCA officials and police officers.

Most girls interviewed revealed that they are sexually abused at night when they are roaming the streets in search of either food or accommodation. In our interactions with street girls, they also named boda boda cyclists as some of the people who sexually abuse them on streets.

However, both KCCA and police dismissed the findings, saying that as government institutions, they maintain a high standard of discipline and that when one of their officers break the law, action is taken against them to avoid reoccurrence of the same offences. The Kampala Metropolitan police deputy spokesman, Mr Luke Owoyesigyire, disagrees with the findings of the study, saying there is no single complaint lodged against any officer.

“We haven’t had such cases but if any one comes up and pins a specific officer, the law will definitely take its course,” he says.

Dialogue. Some of the street children with

Dialogue. Some of the street children with their parents engage officials from Kampala Capital City Authority, ministry of Gender and Karamojja leaders during a dialogue on August 15. PHOTO BY alex esagala

However, Mr Owoyesigyire notes that police have on several occasions arrested street children who vandalise or steal people’s property. But he does not offer details of the average number of street children who are arrested on a daily basis.

Asked what police is doing to bring those who abuse street children to book, Mr Owoyesigyire says that police is working with relevant authorities like KCCA and ministry of Gender to take all street children to rehabilitation centres to save them from violence on city streets.

KCCA’s spokesman Peter Kaujju says: “As an institution, we maintain a high discipline standard and in case any of our employees break the law, we take action against them.”

Mr Kaujju says that KCCA recently passed the Child Protection Ordinance 2019 to curb the influx of street children in the city.

When finally passed into law, anyone who dare gives a street child money or food shall either pay a fine of Shs40, 000 or be arrested.

Similarly, any parent who shall allow their children to go on streets shall also be arrested or pay a fine.

Inadequate funding
The principal probation social welfare offer in the ministry of Gender, Mr Micheal Alule, says while government allocated Shs3b to specifically handle the rehabilitation of street children, only Shs1.5b was released and has since been disbursed to relevant authorities for resettlement of the children.

On how the ministry intends to completely get rid of children on streets, Mr Alule says that repatriation of children can’t be done overnight but rather should be a process involving different stakeholders.

“What we are doing is to build consensus with parents and leaders from the Karamoja sub-region and other key partners to see how we can plug all the possible gaps which these children use to get to streets. For instance, the recently launched operation to rehabilitate street children has borne fruits because it is a collective effort,” he says.

At least 800 children have been rescued from Kampala streets since the operation started and rehabilitated in Kampiringisa (Mpigi District ) and Masulita (Wakiso District), among other places.

key players say...

Mr Simon Peter Olengeje, the male councillor for Kisenyi II Parish. “We have raised this matter with authorities but they are yet to take action. Our demand has always been that all brothels in Kisenyi be demolished because children are getting spoilt. Besides, these structures were illegally erected because owners don’t have approved plans from KCCA,”

Mr Charles Musoke Sserunjogi, the Kampala Central Division mayor. “Kisenyi leaders have been crying out to me to find a way [to get rid] of brothels because children are getting spoilt. I will ensure that we make an operation with police to demolish the said makeshift houses which have become dens of prostitution.”

Ms Namoe Stella Nyomera, the Napak District Woman MP. “The way KCCA and police arrests these street children is very inhuman. We need to have a human face while rescuing these children from streets because when we befriend them, they can even give us key information which can help us in rehabilitating them.”

Key players say...

Mr Simon Peter Olengeje, the male councillor for Kisenyi II Parish. “We have raised this matter with authorities but they are yet to take action. Our demand has always been that all brothels in Kisenyi be demolished because children are getting spoilt. Besides, these structures were illegally erected because owners don’t have approved plans from KCCA,”

Mr Charles Musoke Sserunjogi, the Kampala Central Division mayor. “Kisenyi leaders have been crying out to me to find a way [to get rid] of brothels because children are getting spoilt. I will ensure that we make an operation with police to demolish the said makeshift houses which have become dens of prostitution.”

Ms Namoe Stella Nyomera, the Napak District Woman MP. “The way KCCA and police arrests these street children is very inhuman. We need to have a human face while rescuing these children from streets because when we befriend them, they can even give us key information which can help us in rehabilitating them.”

Way forward

Government effort needed. The Executive Director of Africhild Centre Uganda, Mr Timothy Opobo, says to address the current street children crisis, government must first tackle the factors which push children to the streets among which is poverty.

Mr Opobo says while KCCA passed an ordinance to curb the influx of children on city streets, it is a short term solution. What is required is a sustainable measure. He challenges authorities to first crack the whip against parents whom he said send their children on streets to beg.

“At a macro level, government must go back to the drawing board and address poverty. Our population growth is at 3.2 per cent annually hence we are multiplying at a fastest rate. We need to emphasise manageable families because giving birth to children you can’t look after means that you are creating a very big crisis ahead and the end products will be street children,” he says.

He implores government to invest in social protection, which he says would help in addressing the current crisis of street children in Kampala.

This story was written with support from AfriChild Centre Uganda.

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