Many of these children claim to suffer even more at the hands of the police.
After five years of homelessness, John is an expert at making his bed: he lays a piece of cardboard on a stretch of cement, wraps a large bag around himself and attempts to sleep. The bags he relies on for warmth – which are plastic, or the types used for rice and sugar – are collected from dustbins in Mbale, a town in eastern Uganda. If he’s lucky, a kindly market trader might donate one.
It’s a small comfort for John, an orphan who has grown up on the streets. “We eat leftovers. I don’t sleep very well – it’s not very comfortable. We live badly,” he says, before huddling together with about 30 children on a shop verandah, opposite a nightclub.
The worst part of John’s life is the punishment meted out to him and his friends by the very people whose duty it is to protect them. They are accused of being criminals and chokora (scavengers), and beaten. “They cane us, the police. Big boys cane us. They use sticks and they punch us,” says John, who is about 15. This usually happens at weekends, he says.
Child abuse in Uganda is a major problem. A free national child helpline, set up with support and funding from Plan International about a month ago, receives about 1,500 calls per day from children and adults, according to the call centre manager.
A report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW), based on interviews with 132 current and former street children aged eight to 18, found that in six Ugandan town centres, and the capital city, Kampala, police officers, the Kampala Capital City Authority and local government officials have “frequently harassed, threatened, beaten, arrested and detained” or robbed young homeless people.
Boys in Lira, in the north, told HRW they had experienced police tying their arms and legs and forcing them to lie under metal car seats; others said they had been bound to motorbikes and taken to police stations. “There’s also pepper spray,” says Martin, a street child turned social worker who had been homeless for seven years.
The exact number of street children in Uganda is unknown “because nobody cares”, Martin says. A study by the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect estimated there were 10,000 such children last year – up 70% since 1993.
Martin, who works for a non-governmental organisation offering psychosocial support and skills training to young people in a remand home, says he frequently sees homeless children with bruises and swollen legs. “One aims at the ankles of the children and the elbows: they hit the ankles to the extent that a child cannot walk properly,” he says.
Martin recalls his own experience on the streets, in the 1980s and 90s, when he was beaten many times, he says. It is often emotional and physical abuse, combined with poverty, that drives children on to the streets in Uganda, where the UN children’s agency estimates there are 2.7 million orphans.
Martin’s experience echoes that of many street children. He says he lived with his grandmother because his mother had leprosy and his father was away for long periods on business. He says he fled to the streets to escape an aunt, who had mistreated him. John tells a similar story. He says he lived with his grandmother until she died. His uncles moved into her house and threw him out.
According to HRW, some homeless children spend all of their time on the streets. Many toil during the day as vendors, porters or in small businesses for little money. Some undertake sex work. Homeless young people are vulnerable to sexual assault, which is rarely reported to police.
Lugging the heavy suitcases of bus passengers earns John about 3,000 Ugandan shillings (RM3.60) some days. He says he was taken to a police station in March, before being sent to a remand home for a month. He had no idea why he was there. “They don’t tell you what your case is,” John says.
Maria Burnett, senior researcher in HRW’s Africa division, says: “What Uganda needs to do is ensure children can report violence of any kind to the authorities, and then prosecute police and members of the public who abuse children.”
Uganda’s police commissioner and the gender ministry declined to comment on the HRW report. – Guardian News & Media