I write this from the field, it is very hot, sweltering and hard to concentrate. I am in Kampala. The pace of change is fast and furious, business parks are creeping up all over the city. Yesterday I met with two strong business women who have set up their own family business, breaking into the monopoly of men in a gender biased economy. Speaking to them regarding supplies of corn and maize for their chicken farm we were making contact with supply chains for small holder farmers in the north where we work.
Young people need real opportunities that can help them sustain a living long term, not a two day course with a free t shirt. It is hard not to feel exasperated by the separation of Northern Uganda from Kampala and the world of opportunity. “People from the North don’t want to work” states one of the business groups but surely that can’t be true. What is true is that the young people, especially the men have become so far left behind, so caught up in a vicious cycle of deprivation that they remain there.
NGOs have focused traditionally on women and of course it is easy to see why. Women work incredibly hard in their gardens day and night, they care for children, holding communities together. However can we just leave men out? Reports are circulating of the number of men being delivered to the police by NGO due to defilement, domestic violence, petty theft. What happens to these young man, often just twelve or thirteen years of age. Why does it go unreported that so many thousands of young men get pushed into adult prisons where they await their fate. No trial, no legal representation and no medical test to prove their age. We encountered nearly 100 just within the small community where we work.
At best they are forced to do long hours of manual labour on working farms, at worse they are sexually abused, starved and many die of AIDs. In Patongo a new prison was recently built, within 6 months cracks appeared. All the prisoners are back to the old building which has no roof. Packed like sardines in a tin.
The abuse of prisoners has always been a continuous issue. One that people look away from, it is not sexy and it’s doesn’t pull on hearts strings. However young, these children have committed offences, they don’t deserve our support. So the subject is ignored and these children rot away, day after day becoming one by one the worlds most vile and terrifying subjects.
Today I am going to see one young boy, a victim of this system. His mother died and his father remarried. His new step mother refused to accept him. Left at home when he used to go to school, now he was told they had no money for school fees and uniforms, despite having money for his stepbrothers to go. This poor young boy had everything to learn but he was left alone, told to survive on his own. He was twelve years of age. So being bright and intelligent that is what he did, stealing bicycles, glass from windows and anything he can get his hands on. Notorious to the community, he was arrested at thirteen, taken to the remand home and left to rot.
Emmanuel however was too smart for the system, he escaped in the night, stealing away from a fate worse than death. Knowledgable that sooner of later he would contract some awful disease, be beaten, or starve. When he turned up in Patongo he had no one to go to but David, the director of the youth centre. He pleaded for help, forgiveness.
We believe in forgiveness. Jesus after all was a preacher in the prisons, recognising that everyone deserves a second chance, that everyone deserves forgiveness.
In most instances these children haven’t had a first chance, stealing for food can hardly be called a crime. I am sure we would all do the same if we were after all placed in such a position. Not to mention that many of these youths are former child soldiers, caught up in the trauma of a lost childhood.
It takes years to repair broken communities, it requires holistic approaches that address all aspects of gender discrimination. This week we are delighted to be opening a programme in partnership with JLOS, the Uganda Justice, Law and order system. This programme will aim to rehabilitate young offenders, supporting children that have committed crimes and offering rehabilitation in the form of business and entrepreneurial opportunities combined with psychosocial support to help them reflect on their behaviours and attitudes. The programme works across four districts, working to improve government systems. Supporting police, probation officers and community leaders to make the right decisions for their children. To ensure where poverty is the root of crime that this is acknowledged and addressed.
The programme will also focus on ensuring child victims of abuse have legal representation, support and access to justice. The newly established legal aid clinic in Patongo is the only one operating specifically for children within the entire reach of the districts.
There is still much work to be done but it is our hope that through our diversions scheme we can illustrate the benefits of youth rehabilitation, preventing children from being born inside the prison gates, supporting young girls that commit offences to defend themselves to the brutality of male discrimination and lastly to not forget the young boys who were abducted in the night to support a war they did not believe in and never won. These young lost innocent lives that end in the prison cells. Do not let us forget them because their faces are now weary and sad. They need our help now more than ever before.
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
― Nelson Mandela
Written by Anna-mai Estrella, the Executive Director at Chance for Childhood, on her recent trip to Uganda.