BBC used an expansive investigation of child care homes in the central district of Masaka to lay bare the rot and the huge lengths some homes go to trap vulnerable rural children in misery, poverty and abusive conditions.
The government has since followed up on the BBC investigation broadcast in January 2019 with a countrywide crackdown on child care homes. At least eight child care homes in Masaka district, accused of operating illegally, have been put on notice for closure.
Maria Nagawa, the district probation and welfare officer, told The Observer in a recent interview that only five out 13 care homes were approved for licensing. The rest, she said, have been put on notice for closure.
“We give them an option to voluntarily close. If they fail to do so within the time we have given them, we move in and close them down,” Nagawa said on August 12.
The eight child care homes in Masaka on the government blacklist are some of the more than 500 the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development ordered closed last year.
“There is a thinking that Uganda is a lawless country when it comes to governance of children,” State minister for Youth and Children Affairs, Florence Nakiwala Kiyingi told The Observer on August 9.
“Anyone willing to operate a child care home is not required to pay for a license, which lasts five years. If the license is free and readily available, why should someone operate without a license?” Nakiwala wondered.
In December last year, Nagawa closed some homes in Masaka in full view of BBC journalists who in an investigation titled; The orphanage business, which aired on January 15, exposed how some orphanages use children picked from families in rural Uganda to fleece their unsuspecting donors.
It pinpointed a care home near Masaka municipality’s Kumbu housing estate, which solicits financial support from charities in the UK but doesn’t use much of the money to support and care for children. There is an estimated 55,000 children staying in child care homes countrywide. But while most care homes pass off as orphanages, most of the children under their care are not orphans.
They are simply recruited from their parents in villages. The founders of the so-called orphanages use recruiting agents who traverse villages persuading parents to give up their children to care homes with promises of good education and provision of basic necessities like food and clothing.
Most dubious care homes are run by private and not-for-profit organizations and churches and do not adhere to established minimum standards for operating such institutions. Through their established links to churches in Europe or the USA, the proprietors solicit funding to run the “orphanages.”
A security source who preferred anonymity told The Observer that several child care homes in Masaka receive donor funding but spend very little or nothing on children. One such organization, according to the source, is in Masaka’s Buwunga sub-county. The home uses children to till plantations.
“If you visited on a Saturday, you would find the children digging coffee or maize plantations; they are used to generate income to cover some of the costs incurred in running of the orphanage,” the security source said.
According to findings of a 2017 study published by AfriChild centre, a Makerere University child rights research and policy organization, children under child care homes suffer various forms of abuse including exploitative child labour, sexual abuse, verbal insults, physical violence, psychological violence and neglect of their basic needs, among others.
The report documents testimonies from children housed in various institutional homes around Kampala, Wakiso and Jinja. The latest report on child protection by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef ) Uganda country office lists sexual violence especially against girls as the most common form of violence against children.
BBC investigative journalists visited one home and found a sick boy who hadn’t received any treatment. The same boy had also not been given his much-needed medicine for sickle cell anemia. “In some homes, you find about two people taking care of about 43 children,” Nagawa said.
The abuse in child care homes, according to Timothy Opobo, the executive director of AfriChild, is higher than the abuse occasioned to street children.
And worse still, some children in care homes are sent out onto the streets at night to beg or at worst, pickpocket. These cases were specifically mentioned by security contacts in Masaka and Jinja.
To Opobo,government has not succeeded in regulating the management of care homes due to existing gaps in the legal regime, which make it easy for illegal care homes to sprout out.
“No one is supervising them, no one is checking to see that they meet the standards leave alone the quality of people handling the children,” Opobo said.
Unicef cites the fragmented nature of child protection laws and policies as the biggest challenge to Uganda’s child protection system. There are about 17 relevant laws and policies spread under different government ministries and department. There are also overlapping mandates between the ministry of Gender, ministry of Internal Affairs and ministry of Local Governments, which complicates monitoring and supervision of the care homes.
Without permanent staff in the districts, the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development relies on the services of district probation and social welfare officers who are not well facilitated.
“Government must strengthen its capacity to oversee and monitor the care homes otherwise, the rights of the children in those homes will continue to be abused,” argued Opobo.
For a care home to take in children, it must be approved by the relevant government authorities. These must be satisfied that the care home has facilities to keep children safe and well. According to the Children’s Act, children taken into care homes must be considered at risk or in need of care and protection.
The laid-out procedure requires that government agencies in a district must inform the ministry of the presence of children in need of institutional care. The ministry then makes an assessment and calls for an application from licensed institutional care homes in the particular area to care for the children at risk.
“It is the government to give you the children, not you going into the villages to look for the children to put under your care; it is against the law,” Nakiwala said.
According to Nakiwala, there are currently 160 licensed child care homes in the country each with a recommended capacity of not more than 100 children.
Some, however, have more than 1,000 children, she said. She said one particular home in Wakiso district has more than 1,000 children picked from different parts of the country.
“The home that houses the children that are stranded must be within that locality, not this practice of having people coming from Kisoro, go to Napak and pick children from there. A child stranded in Kisoro must be housed in Kisoro,” Nakiwala said.
Government is currently working on a new law that criminalizes keeping children in unlicensed homes.
This article is produced with support from AfriChild centre, Makerere University.