The Coronavirus pandemic has left thousands upon thousands of people who were previously vulnerable even more at risk.
But among the worst hit around the globe has been street children – including dozens living on the streets of Mbale, a city in eastern Uganda.
Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, many of these children were already facing, or were at major risk of, exploitation. When the lockdown was brought in, they were also forced to hide and run from security personnel to avoid punishment. But many of them were caught and beaten.
It was former street children who recognised their plight in the early weeks of lockdown and began lobbying leaders of the Mbale COVID-19 Task Force, led by the Office of the Mbale Resident District Commissioner (RDC), to take action.
In response, a collective of organisations stepped in to safeguard the street children, with an emergency shelter being set up on the outskirts of the city last week. Global anti-slavery charity Hope for Justice is currently supporting the initiative by working to reintegrate the rescued children with their families, or into family-based care.
In the first four days of the shelter being open, 120 street children were quarantined to protect them from the virus, given accommodation and access to medical care.
Caroline Okotel, Hope for Justice’s Project Officer for Family Strengthening, said: “I was incredibly impressed to learn that it was children who were formerly on the streets, who became concerned about fellow children who were still on the streets, who actually began calling for action on their behalf.”
In the three weeks before help was put in place, street children had to battle with security personnel who were surveilling the public spaces in the city.
Ex-street children were the first to recognise their needs and began to provide them with food, as well as taking to social media to lobby leaders of the Task Force, who in turn mobilised partners to respond.
A committee was formed, of which Hope for Justice is a member, and worked to locate a suitable emergency shelter. Children were transported from the city streets to the secure location where they received immediate welfare such as food, bedding, medical treatment, COVID-19 checks, teaching around hygiene, counselling and one-to-one sessions with Hope for Justice staff.
Peter Wabwire, Hope for Justice’s Project Officer for Economic Strengthening, said: “The plan by the taskforce to confine children in one place was a very good one to prevent the spread of the disease and make it easier to tend to all of their needs in one localised place. Finally, stakeholders are actively involved. We really do hope that resources can be secured to prepare and reintegrate these children after the lockdown.”