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.
So what is stopping us ‘adults’ and making us chase children away from accessing information they need as much as anybody? Are we trying to suggest that children are noise makers and hence disrupters to ‘concentrating adults’? Are we satisfied that parents and guardians, with their responsibility to protect their children; including responsibility to educate their children (of course basing on what they know or have heard) are performing these functions to children’s and society’s satisfaction? Are we still into discussions about what age children can join such community events and especially those that require side-by-side convening with elders? Are the contents of information in such sessions not fit for purpose for minors’ consumption? What happened to the mantra “Children learn from community”? What happens to total orphans, unaccompanied minors and child headed families? What about the children of adults who miss out on community related engagements, what happens to them?
This piece might invite heavy critiques but I believe that when we begin to question how we do ‘small things’ then we instigate the shift to how we act on ‘big stuff’ – through change in mindset and methodologies. Uganda’s current President did not hold anything back through the Presidential Initiative on AIDS Strategy for Communication to Youth (PIASCY), a strategy through which teachers provide practical information to young people who are at great risk. While milestones have been covered through such initiatives, I re-echo that Uganda is yet to achieve full retention of children at school led alone enrolment to ‘free’ schools. Therefore, children need to have access to “age appropriate” information. This piece is not blind to the enormous contributions of churches, cultural events, and so forth – all of which are vital in passing information to children. However, refugee workers need to rethink their community events so as not to exclude children.
Due to our ill-thought through actions, we risk handing the mantle of society to ill-informed youth, and as such, we risk jeopardizing enjoyment of a “brighter future”. We might have inherited different mantles, but we need not pass the same since the world has and will continue to change. If anything, our future leaders can hardly drive the turbulent world if they are ill informed and I believe that it begins with thinking about the little actions we do at home, in our organisations, and in communities. The foundation for an inclusive and just society requires that no one is left behind and that we start with the farthest first. I hereby implore to rethink your action as an individual, and as a member of society.
I thank you for reading and hope to hear your reflections on this piece.
Project Assistant, Refugee Law Project, Kiryandongo Field Office
Twitter: @OciraRobinson2 Facebook: Ocira Robinson, Tel: +256 776 897 195/ +256 783 787 917