Many kids on the streets in northern Uganda are driven there by failing post-conflict recovery and reconstruction programmes and an indifferent central and often under capacitated local governments
As Uganda joins the world to mark the International Human Rights Day on 10 December, a key concern remains the rights of children in conflict and post conflict environment. In northern Uganda, children below the age of 18 have been the most affected by the more than two decades armed conflict between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Government of Uganda (GoU). An estimated 30,000 children were abducted, according to UNICEF, during the course of the insurgency, half of who remain unaccounted for. Today, three years after the first phase of the infamous Post Conflict Recovery Programme (PRDP), the plight of children is not any different.
Majority of children cannot access quality and affordable health care, education, livelihoods and family support. Many of them are orphaned by the war and some have been forced to the streets. Some have resorted to drugs, child prostitution and outright theft. The phenomenon of street children is the most problematic and perplexing in a society where a child ordinarily belongs to the community. But land conflicts and the general impoverishment of the war have left a fractured and near dysfunctional society that can no longer care for its little ones.
Just like in many parts of Uganda, street children in Gulu lack adequate protection from unwanted behaviour and are without guidance. A number of them are children working on the street, but with regular family contacts, others are children living and working on the street without any family bonds; and the most vulnerable categories are those born in captivity with child mothers, totally orphaned and completely abandoned and neglected children. Many have fallen victim to defilement and early teenage sex resulting into spread of HIV/AIDS and early unwanted pregnancies. Forced labour and exploitation are the order of the day as many sacrifice their innocence for survival.
Efforts from NGOs like Watoto and many others are grossly inadequate. One wonders whether the stolen billion from PRDP funding could have made a difference, had it actually crossed Karuma, supported the Probation and Welfare Department in the affected districts or even established just one government-run children's rehabilitation centre. Surprisingly, there are no dissimilarities between major pull factors for one becoming a street child, whether from Karamoja, Gulu and Kampala. Alongside clear protection concerns, many street kids are driven by a failing post-conflict recovery and reconstruction programmes with an indifferent central and often under capacitated local government unable to proactively address such children's plight. In northern Uganda in particular, many of the children after encampment did not want to go back to villages with no education or healthcare and opted to stay in urban settings. Many of these children were former night commuters who would sleep in town for fear of abduction by the LRA rebels.
In Gulu, most of the street children earn a living by selling empty water bottles and scraps. Many of them are also involved in stealing. They steal anything from food items to clothes to old sandals. An old woman narrated how difficult it is to cook outside in an environment where a kitchen is a luxury. She narrated to me how one day she cooked posho (ugali) and took it inside her hut. By the time she came out, the charcoal stove had disappeared. When she asked around, the neighbours informed her that they saw a young boy carry the stove towards the scrap dealers. When she reached there, she found her stove had already been sold off for a mere 1,500 shillings while it was steaming hot. The stealing is a response mechanism and conditioning for survival. For the few who have homes and families, the money they earn through bottle selling is often taken away from them by their parents, peers, or gang leaders. Sometimes, it is spent on drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol in an attempt to emulate their peers and also to keep them awake throughout the night. Many have become addicted to alcohol, which allows them to temporarily escape their problems.
For the girls, life on the streets is hard as well. They have no choice but to engage in survival sex, which is the most readily available means of making money. Almost every girl living on the street acknowledges the exchange of sex for food, clothing, drinks, shelter, and money. In Gulu town, street children have become the socialites in bars, partying from Monday to Monday. But this is not the lives they want. They all aspire for a better life and many wake up with their hang over eyes and heads to the UPE schools, well knowing they cannot compete favourably with their counterparts in Kampala and other private schools. They still believe that even with a modest chance at life, they will make it if their parents' lands are not grabbed.
Various options need to be explored to respond to the plight of street children, among these are initiation of socio-economic programmes; resettlement, reconciliation with parents/guardians, counselling, educational programmes like vocational training, and remand homes. The children also demand that the Government of Uganda should build rehabilitation and recreation centre and shelter. Notably, they want government to address the push and pull factors that forces them to the streets. They also ask for CSOs and community members to exert pressure on the government to take such actions.
However, CSOs and other development partners also need to come together to transform the street children realities. With post-conflict recovery still in a balance, intervention is needed to address the plight of street children in post conflict northern Uganda, if sustainable peace should be realised.
Joseline Amony works for Refugee Law Project.