Address rising street gangs

Sanyu Roberts

What you need to know:

  • If street children are not rescued and their lives redirected, it is very likely that more of them will graduate into criminals. In trying to survive.

Residents of Kampala and the city suburbs have of late witnessed street gang attacks and many have been robbed of money and other valuables. Victims are beaten and left unconscious, fighting for their lives after brutal attacks, while others adie.

The rise in criminal gangs has left many of us wondering what law enforcement is planning to do in order to ensure not only safety and security in our communities, but also the streets on which we walk and drive everyday.

The government introduced surveillance cameras on the streets and various roads within the capital city and beyond, a security measure that we ought to appreciate. The worry is that even with the knowledge of the cameras being in place, the gangs will attack at any hour of the day, regardless.

I wish to draw attention to the correlation between street gangs and the long standing problem of children in street situations. The challenge  is usually as a result of urbanisation, children living and working on the streets should to be attended to, rescued and helped to live responsible lives in families or independently if there are extremes. 

If street children are not rescued and their lives redirected , it is very likely that more of them will graduate into criminals. In trying to survive on the harsh streets, the children will do anything at all costs to live and thrive. And besides, you wouldn’t expect the streets to instill morals, values, or skills worthy of a well-groomed child.

For the last three decades, organisations and individuals involved in the  work of rescuing and rehabilitating street children, have appealed to different stakeholders to support their rescue efforts. The call has over the years fallen on deaf ears and very little has been done. Whereas this has been so, the numbers continue increasing because we have not had a shortage of the pull and push factors. The most recent statistic was realised from a 2017 enumeration of street connected children that was done in the four districts of Kampala, Jinja, Iganga and Mbale that put the numbers at 15,000. 

The Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 saw an influx of street children because of the effects of a nationwide lockdown that left businesses closed and jobs lost. Many families struggled to put food on the table, among other basic needs. The President announced a huge sum of money that was to be released through the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, to facilitate the retraction of children from the streets. 

The Minister of State for Youth and Children Affairs then, updated the public on the release of these funds, but we never got any accountability of how the money was used. Interestingly also, during the same period that the mass retraction was carried out, I personally walked the streets and witnessed first hand, brutalised children with wounds and swellings inflicted by the Local Defence Unit (LDU), military police, and police forces.

The children, victims of physical, psychological, emotional and sexual abuse, run to the streets only to encounter hostilities of law enforcement personnel. They are chased, rounded up, thrown into police cells, juvenile facilities and prisons. Moreover, there are extremes, where those in conflict with the law have lost lives as a result of mob justice, involving beating, stoning and burning these juveniles.

So now, what haven’t these young people experienced? They have witnessed their peers stoned, shot or burnt to death, they know all the walls of prison and they know it could happen to them any time. They have grown thick skin and are out to live or die because society has judged and outlawed them instead of listening and understanding their plight.

What should be done to address the problem of criminal gangs? There’s a need for concerted efforts of all stakeholders, including the businessman, the recycling company, civil society organisations, law enforcement personnel, the media, the line ministry of government and the general public.

Admit children from the streets into skills training centres to make them productive and prepare them for independent living with an employable skill. Sensitise and train community and parents in parenting skills. Train law enforcement personnel in child protection and child friendly approaches in the rescue of children.

Mr Sanyu Roberts is a children rights advocate.