We must hear the refugee children out

Mr Johnson Mayamba 

What you need to know:

  • The refugee children are also tasking us to talk to their parents, who in this case, due to poverty, push the youngsters into forced child marriages. 

For decades, Uganda has been surrounded by countries facing conflict and natural disasters, especially as the current case with South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). 

As such, Uganda has become a safe haven for those seeking refuge and the most affected refugees are the children, who comprise more than half of those fleeing to safety. In such times, as the number of refugees surge in host communities, keeping up with human rights observance is challenging because authorities eventually become overwhelmed.

 This is what we are witnessing with the refugee children in Adjumani District, who are decrying the unsafe conditions in the settlement camps, as reported by the Daily Monitor  on December 16. These children have also called for punitive measures against the violators of their rights.  During a children’s parliament organised by World Vision in the same district, the refugee children said “poor parenting, poverty and bad cultural practices were fuelling cases of defilement, underage marriage, and teenage pregnancy”. 

For refugee children who are vulnerable, dependent and still developing, such is a terrible thing to happen to them and contributes to their long-term trauma.

As a member state of the UN and the African Union, Uganda has committed herself by signing and ratifying key international and regional instruments on the protection of children’s rights such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, among others. 

These legal frameworks bind Uganda to undertake measures that give effect to the provisions enshrined in these documents and periodically report to the respective committees on any progress.

 To that effect, the UN has always commended Uganda for her open-door policy for refugees and asylum seekers that guarantees freedom of movement and the right to employment, education and health, as well as the right to start a business. The policy also empowers refugees economically by offering them farm land, the same rights enjoyed by citizens. 

However, with such outcries from the refugee children, the country’s image is bound to be tainted. But all hope is not lost; we can do something about this horrendous situation to better the lives of these refugee children.

Among the recommendations put forward by these children to better protect them include passing by-laws to end child marriages. The bylaws can empower local authorities, communities and children themselves in respecting, protecting and promoting the human rights of these refugees in settlement camps. However, we are aware that Uganda is well-known for having excellent laws but their proper implementation is always lacking. The proposed by-laws, therefore, should bear fruit in the end by way of proper implementation. 

 The implementation should be backed with communities’ sensitisation to raise their vigilance and awareness of the plight of refugee children and why it is important to stand up for their human rights. The religious and cultural leaders must be brought on board too. Due to their influence, these play an important role in advancing the human rights of these children by speaking up and canvassing for support for the cause from their followers. Passing laws is one thing but having the communities’ support is what makes them effective and hence brings about the desired results. 

The refugee children are also tasking us to talk to their parents, who in this case, due to poverty, push the youngsters into forced child marriages. As we do that, they are similarly asking that we empower girls by building their capacity to report such bad practices. I will add that involving boys and men in such efforts will take us further in protecting the refugee girls against defilement, teenage pregnancy and child marriages. 

By the time these children are crying out, it has become impossible for them. We need to hear them out and act with utmost urgency to save their lives. 

Mr Mayamba is a human rights journalist.


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