Life on the streets

by Paula Biraaro*

The plight of street children in Uganda is a recurring phenomenon that needs to be urgently addressed. In 1993, the population of street children in urban centres of Eastern Uganda - namely Jinja, Mbale, Tororo, Iganga, Busia and Malaba - was estimated at between 4,000 and 10,000. In all the urban centres Kampala city has always had the highest number. Since 2006, there has been an upsurge in the numbers of Karimojong children leaving their homes in Karamoja and out-migrating into major towns located in Eastern towns and the capital city of Kampala. The root causes always advanced by the children affected and interviewed has been poverty and insecurity. It has always been found that parents are at the forefront in trafficking their children to neighbouring districts to work for as little as UGX 3,000/- (just above USD $1). Most of these children in return send food stuff and money back to their parents. Reduction in animal population for these nomadic communities has also affected the traditional source of livelihood mostly as a result of disease outbreak and cattle raids.

Photo by Thomas White


The Karamoja region has for the past twenty years been a hub of insecurity characterised by gun violence and cattle raids between the Karimojong and the Jie and Pokot pastoralist communities of the Kenya. It was until government interventions that the region has been relatively peaceful for the past five years with few isolated incidents. The cordon and search operations also with its associated ills of arbitrary arrests and detention, deprivation of property, loss of lives and ill treatment, further forced some children to flee into towns for refuge.

Unfortunately in some cases, some local leaders have been arrested for promoting or directly being involved in trafficking of the children in exchange for monetary gains. Some unscrupulous local council leaders have trafficked children into major towns because they are paid in turn by those demanding these children for cheap and free labour to work as housemaids. In some few instances, some children go out of their own free will due to influence from neighbours and the surrounding conditions

In an attempt to investigate this problem, intermittent assessments have been carried out by some institutions to find out the factors responsible for the out-migration, some protection strategies designed for Karamoja, attempting to develop holistic intervention strategies for child abuse, child labour, child trafficking and generally protection issues. Measures were taken for the repatriation of unspecified numbers of Karimojong children and their mothers out of streets of Kampala and bundled onto buses headed to resettlement camps in Napak district. Some of the children who were identified as defaulters were forcefully sent straight to National Rehabilitation Centre. In one of camps, the basic needs like water, food, medical care, education was inadequate and unsustainable forcing many of the children to flee back to Kampala.

These events forced several government agencies local and international institutions to come in and to approach the situation in a more coordinated manner to ensure the protection of the children so that their rights are not infringed upon in the process.

Way forward: some suggestions include a comprehensive and joint study to find out the push and pull factors leading to out-migration, responsible persons, and why the children often return back after resettlement, alternatives to begging and staying in towns; establishing joint monitoring hubs and street outreaches in Kampala, affected eastern towns and Moroto for information collection and dissemination purposes; direct assistance to the victims of trafficking and their families in the transit centres and in areas of return.



Special thanks to Thomas White for permitting the use of his work.


Paula Biraaro is a human rights lawyer working with the Uganda Human Rights Institution (UHRC), a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) constitutionally mandated to promote and protect human rights in Uganda. She holds law degree from Makerere University, Kampala, and a Master’s degree in Public International Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).


Readers are encouraged to quote, reproduce and share this content for educational, non-profit purposes, provided the source is acknowledged. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the HR&D team.

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