(Nairobi) – Uganda is failing to protect homeless children against police abuse and other violence, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Street children throughout Uganda’s urban centers face violence, and physical and sexual abuse. National and local government officials should put an end to organized roundups of street children, hold police and others accountable for beatings, and provide improved access for these children to education and healthcare.
The 71-page report, “‘Where Do You Want Us to Go?’ Abuses against Street Children in Uganda,” documents human rights violations against street children by police and local government officials, as well as abuses by members of the community and older homeless children and adults. 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 labor, including cleaning the 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. “The government should end arbitrary roundups of street children and protect them from abuse.”
Over half of all Ugandans are under 15, and children are the single largest demographic group living in poverty. According to independent groups, local government officials, and police officers from the Child and Family Protection Unit (CFPU), the number of Ugandan children living on the streets is increasing, though the total number is not known.
Human Rights Watch interviewed over 130 current and former street children from December 2013 to February 2014 in seven town centers throughout Uganda. Human Rights Watch also interviewed 49 members of organizations providing assistance to street children, health care workers, international humanitarian and children’s organizations, police, and local government officials.
Human Rights Watch documented 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 they have to avoid further abuse or detention. Scores of street children told Human Rights Watch that they fear the authorities and that police are a source of violence, not protection.
Children have sometimes been detained in police stations with adults and mistreated by cellmates. 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. Other children have been transferred to one of the country’s national remand homes for juveniles accused or convicted of crimes or to the Kampiringisa National Rehabilitation Center, a juvenile detention center, even though they did not face any charges. Kampiringisa, outside Kampala, has been criticized by local nongovernmental organizations and parliament for inadequate staffing and deplorable detention conditions.
A 16-year-old boy from Jinja district who has lived on the streets of various towns for seven years told Human Rights Watch, “These police have to give us our rights. They should make us a home where we can be taken, but let it not be a police station, let it not have policemen so that it is not a prison. This is our country too. Let us not be strangers in our own country.”
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. In some instances, community members also harass, threaten, beat, and exploit street children. When a suspected or actual theft occurs, communities have converged on street children, occasionally carrying out mob violence.
Organizations working with street children told Human Rights Watch that police do little to investigate crimes against street children. Street children told Human Rights Watch that they rarely reported crimes by their peers or adults to the police for fear of reprisals, or that the police would beat or arrest them instead.
Because street children are often the first suspects for a crime, such as theft, police frequently arrest the children and detain them, often without charge. The Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development and local government officials periodically order general roundups of street children throughout the country. These roundups usually occur ahead of special events, official visits, or international conferences, or are a way for the ministry to be seen to be doing something about the perceived “problem” of street children. The head of the CFPU, a police unit tasked to address child abuse and neglect, told Human Rights Watch that, in Kampala, police are asked to provide security during roundup operations.
To find food to survive, children reported working as vendors, porters, domestic help, or laborers in homes, small restaurants, and other businesses. They were paid little for long hours of physically demanding and difficult work. Some children were victims of commercial sexual exploitation, reliant on sex work to survive.
“Instead of being able to turn to the police or local government officials for help when they’ve been abused, children find themselves living in fear of the authorities meant to protect them,” Burnett said.
The Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development is charged with protecting children and has created multiple programs and policies intended to protect the rights of vulnerable children. Uganda has also signed a number of regional and international child protection conventions and has put in place a legal framework designed to protect children’s rights, including those of street children. However, key state child protection agencies are failing to respond adequately or effectively to the needs of these children or to stop the abuses at the hands of the police and local authorities.
One staff member from an organization that helps street children told Human Rights Watch: “Government structures should not just be there in name. They should function. In Kampala, apart from beating them up, the government is doing nothing [for street children]. If all systems were working, you would not see these children suffering.”
The government of Uganda should end roundups and abuses against street children and investigate violence directed at homeless children. Rather than vilifying street children, the government should investigate and prosecute those responsible for abuse, including police and officials. The Uganda Police Force leadership should increase the number of officers working in the Child and Family Protection Unit to ensure there is ample staffing and resources to improve protection of vulnerable and homeless children in all districts. The government should ensure that street children have the same rights and protections under domestic, regional, and international standards as all other Ugandan children.
International partners should actively denounce roundups and police abuse of street children and coordinate with government and nongovernmental groups to carry out child protection systems. Donors should consider supporting organizations and activities throughout the country that help street children.
“For children to be effectively protected and cared for, the government should ensure that all children, including those on the streets, can find shelter and get an education,” Burnett said. “They should be treated with dignity and have the opportunity to find a safe way off the streets.”
Selected quotes from the report:
“There is a tradition – kwercho – that the police use as a way of punishment in threes: the first beating is to open your eyes; the second is to show you the way home; the third is to send you home. They say this to you [as they beat you]…. They kept us in rooms where we were caned … from the back to the buttocks. On the third day they opened the gate and we were caned as we left.”
—15-year-old boy living 10 years on the streets of Lira, December 2013
“Government should look for a better solution for street children instead of beating and arresting us. The more you beat us the more we get hardened with life and it does not solve the problem. They want us to go back home but some of us do not even have homes. Others do not know where our parents are. So when they beat us to go home, where do you want us to go?”
—15-year-old boy who lived four years on the streets in Masaka, December 2013
“[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 1,000 shillings (US$0.40) and left me.”
—13-year-old boy living two years on the streets in Lira, December 2013
“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?’”
—14-year-old girl, Masaka, December 2013