16 April 2012

Uganda: A Transit Home for the Homeless

On Apr. 12, the world marked the second International Day for Street Children as a means to raise awareness for the millions of street children that face a daily struggle of abuse, hunger and exclusion.

In India, according to the UK-based Consortium for Street Children, the organization which initiated the day, 11 million children are living on the streets with no access to the most basic of living conditions. In Rwanda, adds the CSC, 93% of street girls surveyed are reported rape victims. Fortunately, however, efforts are being made to combat this sad reality.

In Rusizi district, local officials estimated that there were over 400 children living on the streets of Kamembe, situated on the border with Bukavu in the DRC, in July 2010. Many of these children come from the remote, rural, and poverty stricken parts of Rusizi and Nyamasheke districts and would turn to prostitution or begging to survive.

Rwanda Aid, a UK registered NGO, has been working in Rusizi and Nyamasheke districts since 2009 and recently built a street children's village between Kamembe and the Congolese border. Their objective is to provide a safe and secure home for the district's street children, support their individual needs and provide educational and recreational opportunities. Prior to this project, Rwanda Aid built Ngwino Nawe, a disabled children's village in Nyamasheke district, which houses approximately 60 children.

The staff and volunteers at Rwanda Aid began construction on their residential village, Bahoneza (A Good Life), in the middle of 2011 and are now ready to welcome their first set of children into their new home on Apr. 9. Three homes will house six children each, with a total of 12 boys and six girls, and a large shared building will be dedicated to programs for an additional 20 street children who do not live in the village. Eventually, Rwanda Aid is hoping to build more houses to allow for 48 children to live in the village and additional facilities for 50 children to visit the village daily for activities and programs.

The residential care that Rwanda Aid provides is designed to be short term; the ultimate aim is to help the children return to their homes whenever possible. The children will also be given opportunities to go to school or participate in vocational training programs to help them become self sufficient as they get older. Priority will be given to children who have been living on the street for at least one year, to younger children, and to those in greatest need. While Rwanda Aid will initially run the programs, it will transfer responsibility to Rusizi district once it is established.

David Chaplin, founder and CEO of Rwanda Aid, sees enormous potential in Rwanda Aid's new endeavour, but recognizes the challenges as well. "These children have been deprived of the love and care and security from an early age," he says. "They will be street wise and devious, and will find it very hard to accept routine and structure. The first challenge will be to establish trust. Then we will need to try to build confidence and self esteem. This will require a lot of patience and we are prepared for setbacks. However, if we can succeed, even with some of the children, it will be very rewarding."

There are street children living in most of Rwanda's urban centres and their situation closely mirrors that of street children in Kamembe. In Kigali, however, the number of children living and working on the streets is drastically larger, as children come to the capital from all districts in search of jobs, education, and support networks. The exact number of street children is hard to calculate because it is always changing, although it has been estimated to be above 4,000. As in Kamembe, there are estimated to be more boys than girls.

Fortunately, there are several organizations and centres such as Centre Marembo, near Kisimenti, that are

dedicated to improving their welfare. Centre Marembo, which opened after the genocide, strives to "reintegrate vulnerable young people back into society," by providing education opportunities, technical training, accommodation, counseling and drop in days.

Supported by the Rwandan Youth Information Community Organisation (rYico), a UK registered charity that was founded in 2003, the centre hosts ten staff members and operates out of three separate facilities: the main centre and office, Umugongo House for young boys, and a transit home for young women in Kimihurura.

Staff regularly visits different areas in the city where street children commonly are and invites them to centre where they are shown the benefits of leaving the streets. Once the children are given a chance to properly clean themselves, the staff spends three weeks looking for the children's families and to reintegrate them when possible. From there the staff and the children decide what is the appropriate next step. For many of the young boys this means moving into Umugongo House.

At Umugongo House, near Alpha Palace in Remera, 25 boys between the ages of six and 12, attend local schools and receive their school fees from Centre Marembo. While the majority are orphans, many of them do have family members and the staff works hard to establish a connection with them and develop reintegration programs. The goal is for the boys to be able to return to their families and to continue attending school or technical training when they are teenagers.

"Everything we do we plan to integrate them and that's what the government wants," explains Centre Marembo Deputy Director Diogène Karangwa. As a result, he says, the organization has not been impacted by the government's decision to deinstitutionalize the country's orphanages and focus instead on reintegrating children into their families and communities.

In Kimihurua, Centre Marembo operates a home for girls who have been raped or are in danger of abuse. They are able to live in at the transit house and receive counseling and training while they recover. Unlike Umugongo House, it is not a full time residence and acts as instead as temporary residence. However, just like at Umugongo House, the staff assists the girls to reintegrate into their communities.

"The biggest challenge," says Karangwa, "is financial means. Most of the time street children have many needs. It is not easy to satisfy maximally the needs of those kids. They lack necessary skills and the knowledge to address their problems. Sometimes they need counseling."

At the centre itself, a variety of technical training programs and activities are offered, including a weekly drop in day where street children can receive food and health care. On a daily basis the centre is full of teenagers who are learning technical and artistic skills. There is a daily six-month long mechanics course that is offered to teenagers and young adults. Currently there are 20 students who come in the morning and another 20 who attend in the afternoon.

In addition to mechanics, Centre Marembo also operates a sewing class for eight girls and young women, but the number is limited due to the number of available machines. The work that they do is then sold in the centre and online as way of supporting the centre and motivating the students. In addition, there are two teenagers involved in making crafts and necklaces and one who makes cards that are also sold in their shop.

One of the unique products that the students make is "the birth control" or "family planning necklace" that was developed by Professor Doctor Maria Hengstberger. The necklace is made up of 28 beads that correspond to the average number of days in the female menstrual cycle. The beads are three different colours; red for menstruation, yellow for the periods of infertility, and blue for periods of fertility. There is a black rubber ring on the necklace that is to be moved in the same direction each day to keep track of the different stages in women's menstrual cycles and to enable women and girls to have a clear understanding of their how their bodies work.

Jean D'Amour, a 20-year-old in his second month of the six-month long mechanics course, decided to enroll "to increase my knowledge about mechanics in order to live a good life." He lost his parents when he was young and lived with a friend in Kamonyi district before deciding to move to Kigali at the age of 16. Before moving, he attended school after meeting a nun who offered to support him and pay his school fees, however he had to drop out of school after he finished senior three. "My life was difficult," and says that he chose to move to Kigali "because I am coming to find the good life." A friend told him about Centre Marembo and their training programs and he decided to visit.

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