Denis Angeri of Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) Uganda, praises the commitment of the Ugandan government to children’s rights but says that much more needs to be done to protect children in conflict with the law. In particular, stronger measures are needed to protect the growing number of street children who should be protected but are frequently rounded up by the police, held in police cells with other offenders and are at high risk of abuse and violence.
Uganda has ratified a number of international and regional treaties and conventions including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which legally obliges the state to protect the rights of all children including those who are in conflict and in contact with the law.
At the national level the Children’s Act Cap. 59, has put in place full safeguards for the rights of all children in the country. The adoption of the Children’s Act was a giant stride forward in harmonising national laws with international treaties which Uganda has signed and ratified.
The Children’s Act has immensely improved the lives of many Ugandan children. It guarantees their rights to health and medical care, of which are the responsibility of the parents, the extended family and the government. The provisions of the Children’s Act also empower the police to caution and release child offenders without recourse to formal hearings thus taking on a more rehabilitative approach.
The legal framework also supports separate juvenile courts, although in practice such courts are not “separate” from the usual criminal courts that are used by adults.
Nonetheless, there are still a number of problems to surmount. Uganda’s severe economic and social difficulties have prevented the full realisation of children’s rights, and there is concern over the inadequate enforcement of legislation to ensure the ‘physical and mental integrity’ of all children.
Street children are of particular concern. Today’s toxic combination of economic and social factors is forcing more and more children to continue pouring into the streets throughout the country. According to a report released by Human Rights Watch on 17 July 2014 titled Where Do You Want Us to Go?’ Abuses against Street Children in Uganda, Uganda is failing to protect particularly homeless children against police abuse and other violence. Street children throughout Uganda’s urban centres face violence, and physical and sexual abuse.
A considerable percentage of children appearing before the juvenile courts are street children with some arrested for committing crimes, and some taken in to be ‘processed’ by the care and protection system.
Although the care and protection system is conceptually separate from the criminal justice system, the two systems appear to merge in practice. Both groups of children are picked up and held in the same police cells, and are treated similarly at courts. Rights and advocacy groups, especially ANPPCAN, are alarmed about the physical and sexual abuse of Ugandan street children and the increasing burden of HIV/AIDS on orphans that prematurely forces them into adult roles; coupled with inadequate access to education, especially for girl children.
While the fact that some street children commit crimes is undisputed, the majority are driven by poverty, which we cannot address or prevent without broad reaching socio-economic reforms.
Ugandan children, child activists and children’s organisations are pinning their hopes on the full implementation of the Children’s Act to improve the situation of street children and all young people in Uganda. We hoped that the legislation – which outlaws any form of discrimination – would dramatically change the inattention, neglect and abuse towards child rights.
In 2013, the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) and Penal Reform International (PRI) compiled a joint review of juvenile justice data in Uganda and produced a report titled A review of law and policy to prevent and remedy violence against children in police and pre-trial detention in Uganda. The report revealed some interesting but critical issues that require urgent attention.
For instance, the report noted that children are often detained for petty offences due to undeveloped structured diversionary methods; the difficulty in determining the actual number of children in detention and ineffective monitoring and the lack of evaluation mechanisms which would help eliminate practices that violate the rights of children in conflict with the law, such as arbitrary arrests, lengthy pre-trial detention, violence and substandard conditions in facilities for juvenile deprived of liberty.
This joint review culminated in a roundtable, the overall purpose of which was to bring together professionals involved in implementing, monitoring and supporting the reform of juvenile justice system in Uganda, to discuss priorities and targets and take steps to promote diversion and a restorative justice approach, and to define priorities in supporting and accelerating the national juvenile justice reforms.
As a child rights activist, I am particularly concerned about the length of time that elapses between the first appearance and the conclusion of cases. Over-crowded court rolls ensure that cases drag on. This is worrying, particularly where children are held in the Juvenile Remand Home, or where those that are 15 years and older are held together with adults in adult remand centres awaiting trial. I think more needs to be done on the following:
- Provision of legal aid to children who cannot afford lawyers need to be well structured with clear provisions on how it will be facilitated.
- Child protection measures in Uganda need to be implemented effectively and fully. Compliance with such legislation would increase if the magnitude of the problem and better knowledge about the factors that put children at risk was available to both state and non-state actors.
- National and local government officials should put an end to organised round-ups of street children, hold police and others accountable for abuse, and provide improved access for these children to education and healthcare.
The Children’s Act bridged an important gap. But good policies without implementation are of little benefit and there is an urgent need to ensure that the justice system in this country is in full conformity with the right of all children – as stated in Article 40 of the CRC – to be treated in a manner which promotes their sense of dignity and worth.
Find out more about our work in Uganda with FHRI on improving justice for children.
Photo © Lynsey Adario