Awali Shibolo, a former street child, will this year complete his degree in law at the Mbale-based Islamic University in Uganda.
To get there, the 23-year-old has been supported by Child Restoration Outreach (CRO), a non-government organisation in Mbale that rehabilitates, educates and later integrates street children into communities.
“I’m only lucky to have made it but there are many other children out [on the streets],” says Shibolo, one of 500 former street children enrolled at CRO.
Further north is Samuel Nangiro, a primary one teacher at a rural community primary school in Kipedo village in Moroto district. Nangiro laments about the lack of instruction materials and the parents’ reluctance to buy schools uniforms and lunch for their children.
“Children abscond whenever WFP [World Food Programme, a UN agency] doesn’t offer food,” Nangiro says, stressing the need for parents to become responsible by feeding their own children.
In the nearby cluster of Karimojong homesteads, commonly known as manyattas, parents admit that they feed their children on residue from local brew, making them drunk for most of the day.
The trick works for the parents because children don’t feel hungry and won’t nag them for food!
Across the Nile, red ants hover on walls and ceiling of the delivery ward at Bondo health centre III in Arivu sub-county, Arua district. Sabina Buleru, a senior midwife here, discloses that the delivery unit also lacks lighting because the facility has no reliable electric power supply.
Regional power utility Wrenco rations electricity with regular load shedding. The solar panels at the facility broke down five years ago. Buleru uses a hand-held torch during her work.
“Using this torch for lighting limits my capacity to help mothers during delivery; it’s not easy to find the veins under such limited light,” she explains.
Miles away in Gulu district, a similar situation prevails at Bobi health centre III. These were some of the dominant issues from a fact-finding tour organised by Unicef recently through eastern Karamoja, northern Uganda and West Nile.
Limited investment in health facilities, lack of quality education and abject poverty came out strongly as the leading causes of child criminality. During the five-day tour, which included stops at children centres, health facilities, public schools and communities in 11 districts, journalists and a team of Unicef staff found that hunger and reckless parenting are also to blame for the poor living conditions of children in the country.
Through the ‘InvestinUGChildren’ campaign, Unicef has partnered with media houses to highlight issues such as malnutrition, hunger, domestic violence, early marriages, poor health and education infrastructure, among others.
After travelling with the media in different districts, Jaya Murthy, the communications director at Unicef Uganda, said the UN agency will use issues documented to make a case for the need to invest in Ugandan children.
“It has been an amazing fact-finding mission. We have seen what’s on the ground, what partners are doing; we shall be able to move forward in a strategic manner together,” Murthy said after the final stop at Panandyoli children’s space centre in Kiryandongo refugee camp.
By and large, the tour didn’t reveal any new causes of child sufferings in the country. Previous studies found poverty and lack of education as major causes. But Murthy noted that interactions with children and their handlers in health, education and communities during this tour offered a deeper insight into the issues raised in the numerous surveys done before.
For instance, by visiting the government-founded Mbale remand home, officials learnt that murder, burglary, petty theft and defilement account for half of the cases that children are committing.
The facility is also overcrowded, which means inmates live under harsh conditions. Built in the 1950s by the colonial government, the remand home’s official capacity is 45 (40 boys and five girls) but it currently houses 74 children – 65 boys and nine girls – collected from 28 regional districts.
Keeping children under such deplorable conditions makes it harder for the counselors to rehabilitate them. Irene Nsangi, the manager of the remand, disclosed that the facility has only one vehicle to collect and transport children to courts from around the region, which results in delays in delivering justice.
The situation at Mbale remand home is just a tip of the iceberg. According to figures quoted by Unicef and other official government agencies, 55 per cent of Uganda’s under-five-year-olds, or approximately 3.7 million children, live in poverty while nearly 40 per cent of the six-to-17-year-olds also live in poverty.
On nutrition, 33 per cent of children in Uganda are undernourished, 14 per cent are underweight while five per cent are severely malnourished.
It’s against such appalling conditions that Unicef is rallying rights activists and private sector stakeholders to join the ‘InvestinUGChildren’ campaign. To achieve its ambitious ‘Vision 2040’, which entails a middle-income status, Uganda government must ensure children gain access to fundamental rights of health, education, protection and participation.
Accordingly, the government has tasked the National Council for Children (NCC) in the ministry of gender, labour and social development to oversee the ‘InvestinUGChildren’ campaign.
Tom Mulundu, a senior programmes officer at NCC, said government will increase investment in quality health, education and nutrition.