By Fred Enanga, Press and Public Relations Officer of Uganda Police
On the 17th July, 2014, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report implicating the Uganda Police and other officials including those from the Kampala Capital City Authority of beating, extorting money from, and arbitrarily detaining street children during targeted roundups.
Uganda as a country has demonstrated its commitment to the Rights of children through the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC); the African Union Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the child; and a number of other child related covenants both Regional and International.
In addition, the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda under Article 34 recognizes the need to protect the rights of children without discrimination; The Children Act; Cap 59 provides the legal framework to protect and promote the rights of children. The Local Government Act; Cap 243 schedule 2, further mandates the Local Administrations to provide services to children within their areas of jurisdiction without discrimination.
The problem of street children is a new phenomenon in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa with about 30-40% of the population living in cities and towns that has piled pressure to the respective Local authorities confronted with the rising number of street children. In East Africa, the Legislative Assembly adopted a resolution urging the East African Community to eradicate the tragic phenomena of street children at its fourth meeting of 3rd session held in Kigali 12-23rd April 2010.
In Uganda, street children are found within the city area and major urban centers countrywide with Kampala having the highest number comprised majorly of Karamajong families with their children. The pushing factors are; poverty, disarmament, famine, lack of alternative source of survival, cattle rustling, and child neglect, trafficking by individuals for commercial purposes, loss of parental control, orphan hood, peer pressure, impact of HIV AIDS, and others.
The situation is worsened by the commercialization of “begging” where children are hired and placed by adults on the streets to beg for money. Some families in Karamoja mainly from the three sub-counties of Lokopo, Matany and Iriiri have “borrowed out” their children to this illegitimate trade.
The children while on the streets include those who maintain good family ties and often return home in the evening, with loose family contacts and occasionally return home, those completely detached from their families and live in gangs in temporary makeshift shelters, and then children of street families permanently on the streets. These regard the streets as a “residential estate” and form gangs for physical and emotional support, identity, security, and relief from life and anxieties within their groups.
During the day many of these children engage in a variety of activities like, carrying luggage, picking waste, begging, working in markets, loading/offloading, and stealing. Some work as taxi-touts, while others in restaurants, washing dishes and related chores. The majority of them however, scavenge for waste materials like scrap metal, plastic bottles, rubber materials that they sell to dealers.
The boys in particular seem to be high on drugs, aviation fuel or glue vapor most of the time and many of them suffer infected wounds from broken glass and dirty tins/ metals. The street girls are also visible during day; most of them work as house girls or prostitutes and play a role of “wives” at night to street boys who consider themselves husbands. They are further exposed to multiple hazards like exposure to sexual abuse, poor sanitation and health conditions, crime, child labor, drug abuse, and child prostitution.
The laws in Uganda, therefore, grant children of all categories the full enjoyment of their rights to adequate food, shelter, education, health care, and protection. It however, faces a challenge of operationalising the various laws put in place to guarantee children’s rights.
The Ministry of Gender, Labor, and Social Development developed a National Street Children Strategy for prevention, withdrawal, and reintegration of the street children in 2007. It identified short, intermediate, and long-term interventions to withdraw all street children from the streets of Kampala, and other towns of Uganda, screen all children with a view of identifying their unique problems, institute a mechanism for identifying and resettling all full-time street children.
It also included the process of rehabilitating street children and provides them with opportunities for sustainable livelihood and; provide a sustainable mechanism for preventing children from coming to the streets through a multi-disciplinary approach with different Ministries and development partners.
The implementation of the strategy emphasizes a multi-sectoral and holistic approach in addressing factors that push children to the streets like; provision of adequate water sources, protection of people’s lives and property, provision of accessible and pastoral friendly education, health services.
Others include good communication and road network, promotion of improved methods of farming to enhance food security, increasing availability of micro finance for income generating activities and regular surveillance systems by the Police, Local Government authorities, and NGOs.
It is against this background that the Police supported operations to remove street children from the streets by the Kampala Capital City Authority that is mandated to provide an environment that supports development. This in addition to the concerns raised by the Office of the Prime Minister particularly the Minister in charge of Karamoja over the increasing number of the Karamojong children and women on the streets.
The Authority has probation officers who are empowered to assist street kids and beggars especially when they are in conflict with the law and when their rights are infringed upon. It also has a transit center at Nsumba, Masaka road to rehabilitate and resettle street children. It in addition has five Family and Children courts at Nakawa, City Hall, Nabweru, Makindye and Mwanga II to purposely handle child related cases and to ease the trauma caused in adult courts.
The Uganda Police Force is an institution of Government whose primary responsibility is to maintain Law and Order, and the detection and prevention of crime in Uganda. The Police therefore, have a central role in protecting street children as well as detecting and investigating crimes for and against them among other children. They are the first point of contact between children and the Criminal Justice System and as such are key actors in handling children at the earliest possible stage.
It has specifically trained officers under the Child and Family Protection unit how to handle cases of child abuse and the Directorate of Criminal Investigations and Intelligence, carry out this mandate; however, all officers have a crucial role to play in identifying and protecting street children.
They have thus played a big role in preventing children from running away from home and committing offences through positive links with the community, have taken violence within families seriously to prevent children running away from home, identified children at risk and prevailed over their parents and communities.
The Police with other stakeholders have prevented street children from becoming repeat offenders, by continuously returning them to their families many times through the voluntary repatriation and compulsory withdrawals processes. Under the voluntary repatriation strategy, the task force with the help of social workers and community leaders from Moroto returned 295 street families from Katwe, Kisenyi and Blue Room to their homes in Moroto.
So far, 2,535 street children, 1,906 of who are from Karamoja were resettled and reintegrated. The process of withdrawal paid special attention to infants who required their mothers and guardians before withdrawal took place. The team passed good information to the children like risks on street heath, child abuse, trauma, lack of education.
The street children and families would be taken to the immediate transit center at Masulita in preparation for reintegration in their districts of origin. All the street children are sorted out and information on each child recorded, screened to establish their status, relatives are traced; and psychosocial support services offered including counseling and skills training for children over 12 years provided.
The Police have also participated as stakeholders in sensitization and awareness programs to ensure children are prevented from coming to the streets through radios and documentaries on Karamoja. They included the value of education in rural areas to ensure al school going children are in school and interfaced with parents, relatives and local leaders to monitor street children reintegrated with families, enrolled in schools and those resettle in their communities.
The Police have meanwhile arrested perpetrators and NGOs sustaining children on the streets. It has deployed surveillance teams on major roads and highways like Jinja Road, Kampala Road, Old Kampala Road, Katwe Road, and the city center to arrest those facilitating street children.
Some of the perpetrators arrested and prevailed upon include Father JB from Iriiri, Karamoja who works with an NGO called “Dwelling Places” to traffic children out of Karamoja to Kampala and onward to other foreign countries. Some Local Council leaders and property owners like Maama Maria in Kisenyi, Andrew Lumunye and Keem in Katwe hire out poor rooms to the street families and continuously discourage them from returning to Karamoja.
It is on record that the Police last conducted an operation over street children jointly with officials from the Ministry of Gender, Labor, and Social Development; The Kampala Capital City Authority and an American Consultant to remove street children from the streets. Since then the Police have arrested street children engaged in criminal activities and in the extreme formed gangs specialized in criminal activities.
The HRW focuses on the violation of Human Rights rather than the growing problem of children roaming the streets especially at night. They carry dangerous weapons like hand knives, metallic prick, iron bars, and have formed gangs and neighborhood cliques that control the city suburbs at night. They loot laptops, cell phones, wallets from persons and vandalize cars; sexually assault women isolated at night, and in extreme cases participated in Murder.
The Police have a duty to protect and promote the welfare of street children in their care and custody at all stages of the process as per the requirements of the Police Act and the standing orders. It has strictly enforced the provisions prohibiting the detention of juveniles among adults, and created cells separate for the custody of juveniles. The Police Form 98 that provides for the detention of suspects is accompanied with mandatory medical examination and age verification for the detention of street children.
In the event there may be perceived excessive force or subsequent abuse in any form towards street children, we would request that the allegations are brought forward to enable investigations take place and any officer found guilty brought to book. To date this is not on record anywhere.
We must therefore have constructive partnerships with rights based organizations to prevent and or swiftly intervene on the violation of rights of Ugandans. Institutional development, continuous refresher training, internal and external performance reviews are the ethos of the Force’s ongoing improvement in service delivery
The Police shall continue helping children who are lost and reunite them with their families, directing street children to NGOs, protect them from fellow street children and people who hurt and steal from them. It has adopted several reforms by establishing the Professional Standards Unit with a specific mandate of policing the Police and upgraded the Legal department into a fully-fledged Directorate of Human Rights and Legal Services to help address cases of arbitrary detentions, ill-treatment, and torture of street children allegedly by the Police.
The Unit has continuously received and investigated complaints against Police Officers and charged them disciplinarily and criminally where it found evidence of wrongdoing.
In highlighted context of Uganda’s respect and protection of the rights of the most vulnerable of children in our communities and the remedial measures that can be pursued through fully authorized organs in the Police such as the Child and Family Protection Unit, Professional Standards Unit, Criminal Intelligence and Investigations Directorate, The Human Rights and Legal Services directorate.
It is more productive and prudent that the evidence of offending Police Officers be forwarded to management to ensure disciplinary action or criminal charges are pursued.
As earlier highlighted, it is important and realistic to bear in mind that many of these children have been shaped into hardened criminals due to their circumstances and therefore take the only defensive measures they know to flee any restrictions to their perceived freedom.
This notwithstanding, there is no excuse or condoning of any act of brutality violating the rights of children. We would therefore, encourage and request HRW to work more closely in partnership with the Uganda Police to be able to pro-actively and decisively pursue any complaints raised at the time they occur.
The idea is to form mechanisms appropriate and workable to effectively remove the children from the streets towards solutions transiting them back to normal life; other than short term remedial initiatives by NGOs and institutional publicity aimed at soliciting funds.
In conclusion, the HRW did not correctly contextualize the rights of street children within the complete picture of their involvement in criminal activity (their perceived “survival behavior”) that may in the end lead to distortions in addressing the plight of street children in Uganda and the World at large. We look forward to working with any rights-based organization to ensure Police uphold and protect the rights of all Ugandans in their respective lines of duty.
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Street kids torture: Police response to HRW report