The pull factors are the allure of urban life, financial independence, adventure and glamour.
By Oscar Okech Kanyangareng
As the year draws to a close, most Ugandans are in festive mood looking forward to sumptuous celebrations. But for the Karimojong street children, their distress as no respite.
More so, in spite of contributing to 57% of the street children in Kampala, they not only rebound back on the streets each time they are forcefully removed but their numbers are increasing annually in urban centres in eastern region and Kampala. About 600 are estimated to be in Kisenyi slum alone so, it needs some reflections.
So, why Karamoja? Given that it is even the farthest from Kampala? Well, there are both push and pull factors driven by other dynamics. The push factors are conflict, insecurity, poverty of 74.5% hunger, domestic violence, broken families etc. The rise of Karimojong street children peaked during the disarmament programme in the late 90s. Women who accompany the children also mention abusive husbands.
The pull factors are the allure of urban life, financial independence, adventure and glamour. Children and women who have gone before also send remittances back home and this motivates other parents to send their children too. Among teenage girls, peer pressure also lures them and most work as housemaids or accompany begging children.
However, what baffles also is that out of about 63 sub-counties in Karamoja, 80% of these street children come from Napak district and from three sub counties of Lokopo, Matany and Iririri. So, why? This is explained by the ‘snowball effect’. Whereby one person follows the next who follows the next, resulting in the out-migration of a network of people who share familial, village, or clan connections.
The other driving factor is the exploitation by ‘begging entrepreneurs’. These are mostly women, who operate a ring that lures parents to surrender their children to be taken for begging in the cities, with a promise to remit money to them. The parents are even given ‘gifts’ in advance, to entice them. In all these, most children are oblivious of what they are going through. They live in squalid conditions, with poor sanitation, low access to health services; are denied the right to go to school, denied parental care and are tortured psychologically as they beg against their interests. This is where kids ‘work’ to take care of adults.
The rights of the children as enshrined in both international and national laws are grossly violated. 78.9% of street children suffer various forms of abuse yet most are not reported.
There is a difference between street children from Karamoja and those from other areas in that, those from Karamoja are brought by adults to beg while those from other areas ran away due to problems at home; they are younger, between two to 16 years while the others are eight years and above; there are more girls than boys, as they are required to supervise and baby-sit the younger children.
While other children beg for their personal use, those from Karamoja beg on behalf of other adults who take the collections.
And while other children are ‘children in the street’-live and sleep on the streets, those from Karamoja are ‘children on the street’-are brought and taken back to sleep in slums.
The above unique nature of Karimojong street children needs specific attention. Attempts to address these have often been seen by some NGOs; feeding them on the streets, giving basic health care, adoption, re-integration, taking them to orphanages and to boarding schools. Much as it is helpful, it addresses the symptoms and not the root causes that makes them unique. So, they will keep on piling up.
The law enforcers also harass them on the streets, take bribes and others abuse the girls. They are often brutally rounded up and dumped in a childrens’ homes like Kampiringisa in Luweero or Nabuin in Karamoja without adequate provisions and support of professional services like social workers etc. A KCCA official once their job is to keep the city clean and not to look after children. That it is the business of Ministry of Gender.
Besides, neither the Ministry of Gender nor the local governments like Napak where these children and women are dumped are prepared to receive them. As such, the returnees find the new life hard to adjust to and many escape back to the streets. Much as there is an ad-hoc committee on street children comprised of line ministries like gender and health and similar institutions like KCCA and Police, they only meet as and when there is a need, like to clear the streets during CHOGM. As such, there is no planned and well-coordinated longer term intervention to address the root causes of the plight of Karimojong street children.
Most women have said the life they lead is far different from the rosy picture painted when they were lured to the cities. Most of them do odd jobs as the children are begging. They have preferred an alternative livelihood. Much as they want to go back to Karamoja, it is hard to go back empty handed.
So, to address this goes beyond giving them hands outs or the routine rounding them up. We need to provide mitigating solutions as well as address the root causes. These involves improving the livelihoods back home and the safety of children to prevent migration. It is even easier given that we need to target women and teenage girls in only three priority sub Counties. We also need to create awareness about the horrible life in the cities to dissuade other from following. It is far cheaper to focus on the factors that bring these children to the streets other than on interventions of taking them from the streets, which is very expensive.
While those who are already on the streets such as women should be adequately supported to voluntarily resettle with income generating activities. Adolescent girls can be given vocational skills and those interest in education taken back to schools. As for the children begging, their preference is to go to school. 87% of street children have their future plans off the streets. While other younger ones can be reintegrated with their families.
Then we need to strengthen implementation of child protection policies and laws, develop a national strategic response plan for street children, increase resource allocation, improve and institutionalise coordination.
Finally, in spite of the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act 2009, this child trafficking in Karamoja is going on unabated. The law should crack down hard on the perpetrators and soon, we shall see order, a brighter future for the Karimojong children and sumptuous Christmas each year.
The writer is a civil society activist and comes from Karamoja