UGANDA: Children eke out a living on the streets

Saturday, October 11, 2008

John Kibwola, 14, braves the scorching afternoon sun as he sells his collection of plastic bottles along Acholi Street in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu.

"It is from doing this that I get something to eat," Kibwola told IRIN. "I have been selling used plastic bottles and containers for the last two years.”

He has been hawking the bottles since he left his village of Cwero, about 65km east of Gulu town.

This was after his parents died in an attack by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) militia. "That was the end of everything and since then life has never been the same," he said.

"I could not bear the difficult living conditions in the village, my brother is disabled and my relatives said they did not have the means to help so I decided to move to the streets."

The streets in Gulu have more children like Kibwola, their stories often similar. The majority are also orphans, who lost their parents in the two-decade long war in the north that pitted government forces against LRA rebels.

Hawking is not the only trade for this these children - child prostitution is also common.

"We normally get our clients in the pubs mostly traders from Southern Sudan, truck drivers and people living in the town," a 15-year old girl who declined to be named told IRIN.

She said she earns between 3,000 (US $2) and 7,000 shillings ($4.60) per day depending on the number of clients.

Images of child labour recur at most places in the town. At a local fuel station 13 young boys line up hoping to sell their plastic bottles to the incoming customers who might need them for storing kerosene.

"I collect used plastic bottles from rubbish pits in the town and then sell them," a boy, who only identified himself as Okeny, told IRIN.

"In the morning, I fetch water for people in the town," Okeny said, adding that he earns 200 shillings (about 13 US cents) for a 20 litre jerrican of water.

As former internally displaced persons (IDPs) continue to return to their homes, cases of children being separated from their families are on the rise thus the increase in the number of children in the streets.
Children are also being left behind in some IDP camps, exposing them to various forms of abuse, according to a recent assessment of the Lalogi IDP camp in Gulu. The assessment was conducted by the UN Children's Fund, the NGO World Vision and the local Gulu Support the Children Organisation.

"The situation is very bad in the IDP camps... with parents leaving their children alone with no adult care giver to take care of them, we encourage parents to go with their children to the villages," Santa Oketta, the Gulu district secretary for children affairs, said.

About 40 percent of the northern region's IDPs, estimated at more than two million at the height of the war, have left the IDP camps for their homes or to resettlement camps closer to their original villages.

Oketta said the number of street children and child prostitutes is on the rise, adding that the number of children affected has not yet been established.

"This is a problem that requires urgent attention otherwise we are losing out a lot with young girls engaging in prostitution and others abandoning their homes for the street," she said.

In the meantime, Okeny and Kibwola continue to struggle to make a living on the streets. "We are ready to go to school if we get somebody to help us," they said.