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Why Karimojong women, children face tough choices at home, away

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More than 100 Karimojong mothers were on February 22, 2024 sentenced to one month of community service over sending their children to beg or solicit alms in public places. Photo | Abubaker Lubowa

Mukikaramoja, a drab square-like shantytown, on the margins of the windswept Masese Landing Site in Jinja City, is the archetypical definition of urban squalor: mud and wattle houses, piles of excrement between houses, stagnant water, an unpleasant stench fanning across the air, and abject poverty.

The majority Karimojong-inhabited slum has been expanding during the last 30 years, thanks in part, to the high rural urban migration from the semi-arid region north east of the country, and the rampant trafficking of women and children to the streets to beg.

Yet, despite the litany of life hardships: poor sanitation and living conditions, crime rates, and routine harassment by police, residents say life is better off here than back in Karamoja, a region known for the poverty amid plenty paradox; sizeable deposits of variety of minerals including gold, iron ore, uranium, and marble, and large tracts of flat arable land.

The sub-region’s nine districts of Napak, Kotido, Nabilatuk, Abim, Moroto, Amudat, Nakapiripirit, Karenga, and Kaboong, according to Uganda Bureau of Statistics’ (Ubos) Uganda’s National Livestock Census released in April, has the highest number of sheep with 1.8 million (40.4 percent); the highest number of goats with 2.6 million (15.2 percent); and the highest number of cattle with 2.4 million (16.7 percent).

Add to the mix, the huge tourism potential in terms of variety and distribution, and forests that cover 12 percent of the total size are.

Despite these vast resources Karamoja remains one of the country’s poorest regions. Ubos reported in 2019 that the region suffers the highest poverty rate of 60.2 percent, way above the national average. Other reports on food insecurity have placed the sub-region’s status at 75 percent.

Poverty, hunger, drought, and general insecurity, marked by cattle rustlers from neighbouring Kenya and general lawlessness, have pushed majority residents to the brink. It is also for the same reasons that particularly women and children are increasingly at risk of traffickers, recruited as beggars in many large towns, sex slaves, or domestic workers.

Thirty two-year-old Irene Achia first came to Jinja in the early 2000s from Kotido aged eight. Karamoja was facing severe drought and hunger at the time, and Achia’s mother was faced with two options; see her children starve to death or migrate. The latter option seemed realistic because she had an extended family member who, long before had survived on begging in Kampala.

Achia and her family, however, settled in Mukikaramoja scrapping by, begging on the streets, and combing through garbage bins. Her mother died in 2004 leaving Achia and her four siblings to fend for themselves. Lucky for her, she had been enrolled in a nearby primary school and later secondary but eventually dropped out. Life became tough; she conceived at twenty, fairly late going by customs in her community, then came the second child, but her first ‘husband’ passed away. She “remarried again” but her second husband was killed by machete wielding thugs while “returning from work.”

A hard knock life

Today, hers is a hard knock life: went into begging but discarded it because she was too old to attract sympathy, tried prostitution to feed her children, and currently lives on the veranda on a mud and wattle house of a friend with her children. When it remains, they seek refuge in one the many shell wattle houses around.

“I just want the best for my children, that is all,” Achia told this newspaper in Jinja recently. Either way, Achia maintains life is better here for her and the children. “I left the village when I was young. I don’t know any relatives there,” she added.

Despite life’s hardships, there remains a kindred spirit shared across the community. When a community member dies they pool finances to repatriate the body back home for burial. The dark underbellies are, the influx of street children from Karamoja many of whom are lured by the existing child and women trafficking rings, crime rates, alcoholism, extreme cases of gender-based violence (GBV), high school dropout rates, and high levels of teenage pregnancies and marriages: some parents force their daughters as young as age 13 into marriage as insurance policy against the poor living conditions.

The chairperson of the community, Mr Paul Cheruto, who immigrated to the area 30 years ago starting off as a hawker to owning a merchandise shop today, told this newspaper that they try to live harmoniously with the Busoga community.

“Life is surely tough but we mind our business. This is now home for many, especially the children,” Mr Cheruto said.

Mukikaramoja is one of the small pockets of majority- Karimojong inhabited slums across the country where particularly women and children are caught between a rock and hard place. This newspaper talked to several women who intimated they first came to the area as “beggars”, forcibly sent by their parents or brought by extended family members.

Money collected is split in different ways, usually by the ring leader. Parents back in Karamoja who willfully gave away their children receive a payment, either weekly or monthly.

In a first, the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) court on February 22, sentenced more than 100 Karimojong women and mothers to one month of community service after pleading guilty to sending their children to beg for alms on the streets.

The group of women, all from Napak had been rounded up more than a month earlier during sprucing up of the city in preparation for the back-to-back 19th Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) and Third South Summit held at Commonwealth Resort, Munyonyo between January 15 and 21. More than 300 children were rounded up during the sweep.

The prosecution told the KCCA magistrates court that the women’s action contravened the Child Protection Ordinance, enacted on June 8, 2022, that prohibits acts that encourage children to hoover on the streets.

Grade One Magistrate Edgar Karakire ordered the group of women and their children to be repatriated to Napak District to serve their sentences, and later rehabilitation.

Back in Napak, the children, majority of schoolgoing age were split into two groups: one group of 107 pupils were admitted to boarding school at Lokodiokodioi Primary School in Naitakwae Parish in Ngoleriet Sub-county, and another group of 201 to Lotome Girls Primary School in Lotome Sub-county.

The pupils, district authorities told Daily Monitor in late-April during a visit to the area, will remain housed in the boarding sections of the two schools until completion, or at least for three years.

Between rock and hard place

The Napak District senior probation officer, Ms Molly Nangiro, said with the recent mass rescue they decided to enroll them directly in school.

“Some might say it is institutionalising but it is not; it is to support rehabilitation to change attitude, taken through a process to accept the change,” Ms Nangiro said. “Previously, whenever children returned they would be reunited with their families, only to return to the streets after a matter of weeks.”

She added: “We want to create champions in communities, who believe in education. Imagine all these children returning back to communities after completing a certain phase of education. Let it be known for the record that we are not keeping away the parents, they are allowed to visit the children at the schools within guided parametres.”

“We are trying to have a pilot of three years to see how long the experiment can run. It is difficult, but practical,” Ms Ahamed Fardosa, the Napak Deputy Resident District Commissioner, told this newspaper.

“Normally, the routine was that we repatriate the children from Kampala and reunite them with their parents, only for them to go back to the streets again. This time, we want to keep them in school for at least three years. The parents can only visit whenever they want.”

The two schools, however, are grappling with a shortage of essential items for the pupils, including food, clothing and have to rely mostly on well-wishers, NGOs, and UN agencies that have long operated in the sub-region.

Ms Martha Chamcham, the head teacher of Lokodiokodioi Primary School, told Daily Monitor at the time when we visited that they had written to the Office of Prime Minister (OPM) about the need for more food but were yet to receive feedback.

Ms Chamcham described it as absolutely necessary to keep the children—both the repatriates and ordinary school going children—in the boarding section to reduce chances of “falling victim” to trafficking perpetrators.

“Incidentally, many of those who were brought back knew how to read and write. One girl told us she had been in school for five years but dropped out, to beg to look for school fees. It was hard for them in the beginning but with time many started to get used to it. We just have to conduct more guidance and counseling,” she said.

The method to this madness, officials explained, and investigations by this newspaper over the last two months show, is to check on the rampant levels of trafficking of children from particularly Napak and Moroto districts, especially by their parents or extended family members, to Kampala and other large urban areas to beg.

The few parents who agreed to talk to this newspaper saw no problem with their children living on the streets as beggars. Pauline Chemat, a resident in Matany Town in Napak, argued that “in that way, they are learning survival tactics.”

Six months after the sweep on Kampala’s streets, small groups of children are already back on Kampala’s roads. There is a beehive of them in Jinja City, Mbale City, Bugiri, Masindi, and as far as Nairobi, next door in Kenya.

A July 2023 study titled Trafficking of Karamoja Women and Girls from North-Eastern Uganda into Nairobi by the Kenyatta University’s Department of International Relations and Conflict and Strategic Studies, documented poverty, war and conflict, cultural discrimination against women, illiteracy and a lack of awareness of women’s rights, weak legislations, and lack of slow prosecution of offenders and corrupt immigration personnel, as the primary drivers of trafficking.

The Napak paradox

One question that baffles authorities is that the majority of the trafficked women and children, to beg on the streets of Kampala or engage in other activities, are from Napak District. Several studies published online over the ideas also reference Napak and to some extent Moroto, which for years was the capital of the sub-region.

“We also keep asking ourselves the same question, and don’t understand why Napak stands out,” Ms Fardosa said, adding: “The basic explanation could be the district neighbours three districts of Soroti; Kapelebyong, Katakwi, and Amuria. It is also said that the first people to go to Kampala looking for a better life migrated from here and set off a long chain.”

Mr Robert Owilli Abia, the Napak District deputy chief administrative officer, explained that for decades the sub-region has remained under the chokehold of “low social indicators”— health, security and safety, and environment—that keep pushing people away.

“Still that doesn’t answer why Napak, and not any other district,” he noted, adding: “However, we have done some studies and came to conclude that the key drivers that push these children away to the streets are, poor parenting, people being to handouts, high levels of Gender-Based Violence (GBV), alcoholism, insecurity, and the breakdown in social order.”

A December 2022 report titled “Endline Study of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Napak” by the Uganda Global Fund to End Modern Slavery” detailed that the sub-region’s “extremely high rate of multidimensional child poverty (84 percent), which refers to a lack of both material and social needs, and a traditional acceptance of migration for livelihood increase children’s vulnerability to commercial sexual exploitation.”

During—the British colonial administration did not reach the area until 1898 and after found it problematic to duplicate their governance system in the area— and after colonialism—until around 2006—Karamoja disparately lagged behind in terms of development due a combination of factors including the Karimojong’s pastoral way of life.

The region was stereotyped, marginalised, and ostracised, and although that is changing, thanks in part to the steady flow of donor funded recovery programmes after almost 20 years of disarmament, a long road remains ahead. Northern Uganda, Karamoja included, received more than Shs4 trillion in various stimulus interventions.

Through the Ministry of Karamoja nestled in OPM, the government is currently implementing the Karamoja Integrated Development Plan, a series of policy blueprints to address several development paradoxes in the region.

Mr Abia and other district authorities described the women and children trafficking ring as an intricate one, involving perpetrators who recruit and deploy at the local area level.

“The other driver is peer pressure; and this has a long history. Those who have survived on begging in Kampala set an example and act as a pull factor,” he said, adding: “Cultural institutions, too, do not work, so children are not taken care of; themselves they produce early and don’t take care of their children and engage in commercial sex leaving their infants vulnerable. There are also big poverty issues, you find people with large tracts of land and head of cattle but say they are poor. Then there is alcoholism. There are several factors.”

Ms Fardosa, however, indicated that the “problem of trafficking” revolves around four sub-counties of Lopei, Iriiri, and Matanyi, out of the 14 sub -counties comprising the district.

The Iriiri Sub-county chairperson, Mr Ben Peter Loburo, described as “not intentional” that women and children are running away or being lured by traffickers.

“You have food insecurity, water insecurity, and general insecurity. The government is trying in terms of services like water, but things remain tough. Then education is expensive. We are dealing with a lot, so people move to search for better lives.”