In northern Uganda, refugees who’ve fled war are being locked up for committing crimes just to survive. Today we’re excited to share our new project, providing essential support to women and child refugees who end up behind bars!
Picture your home being engulfed by war. You’re a mother of young children, seeing them grow up around violence and death. You see friends and family die. Your husband is off fighting. You never know if he’ll come home. Fearing for the safety of yourself and your children, you desperately flee – carrying only what you can and the trauma you’ve experienced.
This is the story of over a million women and children from DRC and Sudan. They end up in Uganda’s vast refugee settlements, home to 1.4 million refugees. It’s the largest refugee population in Africa. And hundreds more join them every week. But reaching the refugee camps is no guarantee of safety.
Most women have faced violent abuse as they struggle to survive in refugee settlements
Women living in one of Uganda’s refugee settlements have most likely experienced domestic violence. Three in every five women there have. In their home country, many have been raped and beaten during the war.
Living in the camps is a difficult experience, especially during the pandemic. Local people mostly rely on farming their own land to feed themselves and their communities. But refugees have no access to this. They rely on support from the government to survive. But food rations have been cut as more refugees arrive and the pandemic creates more pressure. Women and children must survive on maize flour and beans, but the rations now amount to a little over 1,000 calories a day.
Children in the Kyaka II refugee settlement
Women and children commit crimes just to survive
In such difficult conditions, refugee women and children end up breaking the law to survive. Women steal food to simply stop their children from starving. But even these petty crimes are punished harshly. Children as young as 12 are being locked up for stealing food. In fact, children who’ve committed petty offences make up most of those arrested. They are in desperate need of support. But the system doesn’t help them.
Three-quarters of children who have been arrested in northern Uganda have mental health issues. Many suffer from PTSD. They’ve witnessed horrific acts. But their experiences with the justice system are likely to make their situation worse.
We’ve seen that the police and prisons don’t even have the resources to properly process the arrests, let alone get them the right support. If you do get legal support, you’re one of the lucky ones. 75% of children’s get no legal assistance at all. Children are supposed to go through rehabilitation. But the reality is they’re kept in poor prison conditions for long periods. There’s a lack of food. And in the cells, they are at risk of violence. After risking everything to find safety, women and children face more suffering.
By the time they’re released, they’ve suffered more trauma. It makes them more likely to reoffend and end up back in prison. Our project is essential to breaking this cycle of poverty, violence and prison.
Your support helps to provide fair access to justice and essential support
Now, we’re running a vital new project. Alongside our partners AWYAD and Penal Reform International, we’re raising the standards of access to justice for women and children. That means those who commit petty crimes just to survive will have quality legal support, instead of being left to fend for themselves. Over two years we’ll help 200 women and 150 children in the criminal justice system who have experienced violence and discrimination!
A group of female refugees from DR Congo have been learning to sew, meaning they can bring in extra income and are less likely to end up in conflict with the law
Currently, many refugees can’t understand the current laws because they’re not in their own language. So, we’re translating them into the languages they speak. By making laws accessible to refugees, they’ll be more aware of their rights as well as the laws they need to follow.
To make sure change lasts, we’re providing essential training to the justice sector. Police and prison officers, lawyers and community leaders will receive child protection training. They’ll also learn how to properly support women and children who have experienced violence, as well as how to keep them safe.
We’ll provide direct support too – such as medical help after suffering abuse. Through counselling, we’ll help women and children to overcome trauma. And through life-skills training (such as anger management and parenting skills) they’ll be equipped to build a life for themselves outside of prison.
All photos copyright Arete on behalf of Chance for Childhood.