Elizabeth who has been a social worker with the Child Restoration Outreach Project for over 20 years, explains why children are driven to the streets and the hardships they face once they are there.
“My name is Elizabeth, I am a social worker by training and I work as a Child Protection Officer with Child Restoration Outreach Project in Mbale.
Street children have been a problem in this region for a long time. In the late 1980s, most of the regions in Uganda were involved in civil conflict. Many of the men at the time were involved in the fighting and ended up being killed leaving behind many widows and orphans. Mbale town, where the Child Restoration Outreach Project is hosted, happened to be relatively peaceful and there was a massive influx of the affected families seeking refuge. Without any source of income and skills, these families ended up in the slums of Mbale town, forming the poorest of the poor and whose children ended up on the streets begging and doing odd jobs for survival. This marked the beginning of the street children phenomenon in Mbale town.
In the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, the causes driving children to the streets changed. Children whose parents died of HIV/AIDS were left alone or with very old grandparents. Following upon this, the immense population growth in Uganda has led to increased poverty levels coupled with pressure on land acquisition. The struggles faced by rural households has led to a massive influx to the city. Rural families think that the city is full of wealth and will solve all their problems. Instead of new found wealth the poor end up in squalid slums. Parents send their children to work on the streets, not considering the dangers and their rights. There is need for massive sensitisation of the communities about the dangers of children living and working on the streets. Also, the introduction of economic empowerment initiatives at community, village or household levels is needed to combat extreme poverty.
The other issue in poor households is often abuse. Men have the upper hand economically and can throw wives out so many women often tolerate abuse rather than leave the home. Widespread alcoholism fuels domestic violence. The children in such families often flee the home and find their way on the streets which they perceive to be a haven compared to the abusive homes they have run away from. Addressing violence in the home towards children and women is a much-needed priority.
Once children end up living on the streets they face many challenges that range from physical and psychological abuse, to labour and sexual exploitation. In the public eye, street children are considered social misfits who should be bundled away and locked up somewhere so that peace and sanity prevails. People in the town also use street children as cheap labour to do degrading jobs and pay them next to nothing. Children face physical harassment from older street adults as well as sexual abuse from those who see them as easy prey. Most struggle to get basic nutrition and sleep huddled on concrete verandas at night.
While on the streets, many children get involved in drug abuse as a survival mechanism and become drug addicts. Many children over time lose touch with their families. Often, they are also not accepted back into their previous homes as they are perceived to be social nonconformists. Many people think they are better off without street children in their homes, lest they become a community risk.
Street children need total rehabilitation which involves a range of activities such as providing them with life skills, counselling, and recreation activities to enable them to shed drugs and street habits. Their home environment needs to be stabilised and psychosocial support is especially critical and must be a priority before engaging them in other activities. Once that support is in place they need to engage in regular activities to help them get ready for school. All these activities are provided for them in the transition classes. The children’s self-esteem is built and their talents developed because of these interventions. Through the transition classes, children once again learn to aspire to education or vocational training and can see a better future for themselves.”