For the last five years, Kate (now 15 years old) has been a street child in Kampala, hustling to make ends meet.
For her, life has been unforgiving in every way.
“We are regularly beaten and chased around by everyone,” she says.
“Sometimes security people and thugs rape us.” Kate’s story is captured in a report by the NGO, AfriChild on the state of violence against street children in Uganda.
The report, unveiled last week, is a result of a one-year study into the fate of street children. These included children who live on the streets part of the time (usually during the day), or throughout.
According to AfriChild’s executive director, Joyce Wanican, those dealing with street children do not understand them at all. “The street children view security operatives and the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) as hostile and are reluctant to cooperate, yet these are the people mandated to deal with them,” she says.
In the report, street children accuse police of various levels of harassment, including rape, assault and theft.
“They tell us that sometimes when the police or KCCA operatives are sent to arrest them, the street children who have been begging are quick to bribe them with their meagre earnings in exchange for their freedom,” Wanican adds.
The report says these children are on the streets “either due to poor parenting, which leads to violence in the home, or trafficking of children who are lured onto the streets by unscrupulous relatives”.
According to one of the researchers, John Apota, the streets do not serve as a welcome refuge for these children. “Even on the streets the children are routinely beaten, tortured, burnt or stabbed for any number of reasons,” he says.
“In addition, the children are forced to stay and sleep in dirty and open spaces, where they also lack water, soap, bathing and toilet facilities, which exposes them to jiggers, diarrhoea, cholera and tetanus after cuts from broken bottles and sharp objects.” Apota says there is almost no access to medical care when they fall sick.
“Consequently, they resort to drug abuse for various reasons, including dealing with hunger, stress, cold nights; as well as the urge to resist sleep and work longer hours.”
Another researcher Doreen Ampumuza also spoke specifically about street children, who are here because they were sexually abused after starting out as housemaids.
“These girls are forced into sex with their employers, and when they resist or are found out, get chased away and wind up on the streets,” she explains.
“These girls suffer most on the streets as they can be gang-raped by their peers or security operatives, if found walking at night.” The boys are not spared either. Ampumuza says they have received reports of boys being sodomised on the streets and in remand homes.
“It is a very traumatic world out there.” KCCA spokesperson Peter Kaujju admitted that they were aware of some of the ills faced by street children, before adding that they were still studying the report to determine how to respond. Police spokesperson Emilian Kayima said he was unaware of security officers raping or assaulting street children, but added that they were concerned about the threat they pose.
“These street children start out as simple thieves and grow into hard core criminals, if not checked,” he said.
However, one issue Kate and Wanican agree on is that the problem of street children can be resolved. “Street children can be reformed and sent back to school to learn skills like tailoring and hair dressing that are helpful,” Kate says.
“If given some modest capital, they can even evolve into business people.” For her part, Wanican says parents and care takers should be sensitised on parenting skills to avoid domestic violence. “Not every offence should end in an almighty beating spree, that leaves the child disillusioned about life,” she says.