Every 8th September, the world commemorates International Literacy day. This year’s commemorations will be amidst frustrations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Uganda, the Government-instigated urgent total lockdown from late March onwards called off all activities that gather people - including closure of all educational institutions and centers across the country. In compliance with the directives from the Government and the Ministry of Health, the Refugee Law Project, School of Law, Makerere University immediately suspended all our thirteen English for Adults (EFA) Learning Centers in the rural and urban refugee communities.
Gender roles present a challenge for the English for Adult (EFA) class enrolment in Kyangwali Refugee Settlement, Kikuube district in Uganda. Women remain less involved in EFA classes because society continues to expect them to attend only to their homes and domestic chores whereas men are seen as the sole bread winners and the heads of families in Kyangwali. This results in a gap between men and women of certain tribes from the refugee community when it comes to accessing services, including English for Adult classes.
The refugee problem remains a global challenge with over 25.9 & 3.5 million refugees and asylum seekers respectively (António Vitorino, 2020). Out of which, over 52% are under 18 years of age. This has strained economies of various host countries in the world. Refugees flee from their countries of origin due to conflicts, persecution and disaster to seek refuge in countries they consider to be secure.
Uganda is currently host to 1,411,098 refugees and asylum seekers from different countries in the Great Lakes region (UNHCR, 2020). The majority come from South Sudan (873,741), Democratic Republic of Congo (409,882), Burundi (48,119), Somalia (4,018) and Rwanda (17,383). Other nationalities account for 21,792 refugees and asylum seekers. Many more continue coming with about 199 received daily. They are received by Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) in Uganda and supported by UNHCR in aspects of livelihood, education and protections among others. Despite the support given, that given in the name of livelihoods has been and continues to be insufficient to the perceived needs of asylum seekers and refugees. Therefore, empowering forced migrants to become self-reliant is paramount to supplement on the assistance provided by OPM, UNHCR and other state and non-state actors.
Refugee women who are differently abled (woman with physical disability) face a lot of challenges. Most people will agree with this. Where our views might differ is in the types of challenges we face. As a differently abled woman, these are some of the challenges I face:
Pity from society is one of my biggest challenges. When society pities us, it is a constant provocation. When you pity someone, you are saying “I am better off than you, poor you, who doesn’t have the advantages that I do”. Society means well, they think they are being compassionate and they are. However, pity from society has a way of debilitating a person with disability. If you grow up being pitied, what follows is self-pity.
I was talking to myself about 2020 being a year that will be remembered for generations due to the Covid 19 pandemic. I particularly kept thinking about what this pandemic means for children. This is because everything seemed to happen so fast after the President announced the lock down in March. Parents were asked to pick children from schools even as public transport was closed down. Remember this was an emergency as there was no time for teachers to prepare children to go back home as usual, no speech days, no end of term party, no sports days that schools usually use to transition children from school to going home for holidays. Schools in Uganda host about 15 million
The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child defines a child as a person under the age of 18 years. Children are considered vulnerable persons that attract special protection from not only the State and its organs but also from its citizens. The Uganda Refugee Response Plan January 2019-December 2020 indicates that children represent 60% of the refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda. In refugee hosting areas there are many children who have been forced to seek refuge, some along with their parents, others unaccompanied or separated from their parents or guardians. In the process of seeking asylum, some of these children face physical, sexual, gender violence and psychological trauma. What, though, happens to those who enter into conflict with the law? I want to share my own encounters, as a lawyer working with refugees and their hosts, with Uganda’s treatment of children in conflict with the law.
Having worked with Refugee Law Project (RLP), School of Law, Makerere University for two years and in two different refugee settlements – Palabek and now Kiryandongo refugee settlement, I have watched with discomfort how children from 6-15 year of age are often “Chased Away” - sometimes with sticks - during community-related events such as community policing sessions and commemoration of international days that are intended to raise awareness and pass on information. Ironically, this strange practice of ‘chasing’ children away is at times at the hands of humanitarian and development agencies - including some mandated to work directly with children. Such practice leaves a lot to be desired; don’t the actors’ plan and budget for such sessions to include children from the onset? One may want to know whether, when organizing an information session for instance targeting 150 people, whether this number includes children. Does ‘people’ by default imply ‘adults only’? If we say ‘non-discrimination’ do actors really walk-the-talk? Perhaps contentious, this is what this blog explores.
More often than not, mobilizing and notifying communities about these activities requires the use of megaphones, as the mobilisers drive along the road, loud speakers and music go hand-in-hand with distribution of beautifully designed posters – all of which attract children to run after the vehicles for several minutes if not hours. In the process, children sometimes aid in relaying the information to their parents and caretakers through bringing the posters home and/or talking about the activity being announced. Clearly, the process of dissemination of messages through the moving caravans during mobilization does not discriminate against children. At this stage, the communiqués passed are inclusive. Words/phrases such as “Come One, Come All” are common.
D-day is usually not any different as it is characterized by loud music and sounds used to attract the audience. Children often come earlier than adults and sometimes even offer to help by carrying and arranging chairs and tables. Ironically, as adults emerge and come to occupy their seats, children end up being instruments of arrangements and mobilization after which they are “Chased”, and sometimes with sticks, by the “Askaris” of the day tasked with crowd control.
Such occasions propel me to ask; Do organizations plan and prepare messages and resources including refreshments for children attending such community events? It is not unusual - and I have myself witnessed this in both Kiryandongo and Palabek settlements - , for ‘refreshments’ to be served to adult participants only despite children being in attendance. Unconsumed bites and drinks are often returned to the stores for accountability purposes. In addition to the discriminatory serving of drinks and bites, it is also typical of such events for the chairs to be reserved for the adults only. It is saddening to watch children sitting on the bare ground as if they are not in attendance. And are children all treated the same? Definitely not! I have seen, on more than one occasion, children invited from schools and donning school uniforms being treated rather differently, and actually in a rather more friendly manner than those not in school uniforms. In other words, the non-school going children in attendance are further marginalized. To make it worse, only few people seem to observe this with dissatisfaction or bother to ask why some of these children are not in school in the first place.
What does this mean for actors concerned about child protection and safeguarding? Clearly, a number of children continue to be excluded from public events as well as community-related planning and programming. Secondly, excluding children from accessing appropriate information is further discrimination, and violation of the right to information. We might argue that age-appropriate information needs to be provided to children and they should acquire them from homes and schools - but such arguments ignore the numerous reasons why children in the refugee settlements are out of school; parents unable to afford the scholastic materials to support the Universal Primary Education and Universal Secondary Education systems; child headed families; total orphans, and unaccompanied minors during war times. It further ignores drunkard parents who are unable to take time with their children. And does the current education system include the kind of information delivered during such sessions? If so, how will rule of law actors address the increasing cases of child delinquency - including cases of “child-to-child sex” – particularly given the very limited number of remand homes in Uganda.
Through this blog, I question the least thought about, because I strongly believe that silence on an issue is not far from perpetration. Some of us perhaps grew up in very different contexts decades back but that doesn’t mean we should blind ourselves to contemporary challenges facing children. If anything, it’s clearer than ever that children are not passive recipients of aid and information – they too are active participants in causing transformation in their lives and their society. The recent cases of children crowding streets in various countries in protest against environmental destruction should awaken us to the fact that children are the legitimate leaders of the future, and as such, we ought to perhaps keep them in the loop of conversations especially those that concern them and their futures.
As the world continues to suffer diverse conflicts and disasters, forced migration is increasing. Today there are over 70.8 million forced migrants, the highest number ever recorded. Of these, 29.4 million are refugees and asylum seeker who have fled their home countries due to conflicts, war and discrimination (UNHCR (2020)). Africa alone toils with more than 6.8 million. Even as it grapples with the legacies of numerous internal conflicts which have left millions of people displaced, disempowered and destabilized, Uganda now also hosts over 1.4 million refugees, the third largest refugee population in the world, and the largest on the continent.
When leaders from government, business, and civil society met on 23 September 2019 to announce potentially far-reaching steps to confront climate change at the United Nations Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit in New York, Refugee Law Project (RLP) had just completed its 9th Institute for African Transitional Justice (IATJ) under the theme: ‘Environmental Destruction: The Transitional Justice Issue of the Future?’.