A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) reveals that children on Ugandan streets face unspeakable, physical and sexual violence. Most of this violence is meted out on children mainly by police, the report says.
Titled, "Where Do You Want Us to Go? Abuses Against Street Children in Uganda", the report was released on Thursday.
The 71-page report documents human rights violations against street children by police and local government officials, as well as abuses by community members, adults and older homeless children. Police and other officials, including those from the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), have beaten, extorted money from, and arbitrarily detained street children, after targeted roundups.
In police cells, children have faced further beatings and forced la including cleaning cells and police living quarters. On the streets, homeless adults and older children harass, threaten, beat, sexually abuse, force drugs upon, and exploit street children, often with impunity. "Ugandan authorities should be protecting and helping homeless children, not beating them up or throwing them in police jails with adults," said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at HRW.
The total number of street children is not known. The report findings are based on 130 interviews of current and former street children from December 2013 to February 2014 in seven town centers throughout Uganda including Mbale, Jinja, Lira and Kampala. They also interviewed 49 members of organisations providing assistance to street children, health care workers, international humanitarian and children's organisations, police, and local government officials.
The report documents how police and officials threaten street children at night, and beat them with batons, whips, or wires to extort bribes or as a punishment for vagrancy. Some children hand over whatever small sums of money they have to avoid further abuse or detention. Scores of street children told HRW that they feared the authorities and that police were a source of violence, not protection.
Children have sometimes been detained in police cells together with adults and mistreated by cellmates, the report reveals. Many were released back to the streets after several days, or in some cases weeks, often only after paying a bribe or being forced to do work for the police.
The report quotes a 13-year-old boy as saying: "[The policemen] take money from us. If you do not have money, they beat you so much... . Last week on Saturday, police came in the night and beat me when I was sleeping with three other children. The policeman beat me on the thighs with a rubber whip. He then hit my knees with a baton. He beat me until I gave him Shs 1,000 ($0.40) and left me."
One female street child explained why she did not report rape to police: "We don't report these things to police. I don't think that they would listen to us. They will ask us 'Are you not an adult? If they raped you, so what?'"
Homeless children also are at risk of beatings and forced drug use from older homeless children or adults. Both boys and girls living on the street reported being raped or sexually assaulted by men and older street boys.
Police Spokesman Fred Enanga told The Observer last Thursday that streets were not homes. "In our laws, a street is not a home; it is there to facilitate movement of goods and people."
He said most street children accusing police of harassment were in fact criminal gangs.
"Some of those children get involved in criminal activities like 'pickpocketing' and others, because of the harsh conditions they live in. Therefore, as police and city authorities, we have to protect the public against such thieves," he said.