Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

By: Jane Stillwater

Kids in America usually have their parents, free public education, child protective services, Medicaid and Sesame Street to fall back on when times get tough — but children here in Uganda have none of that. And the children of Uganda need a safety net far more than our children do because they have a whole lot further to fall if they should make even the slightest misstep.

For example, when times get tough for kids in Uganda, it is completely possible for them to be sold into slavery or forced into prostitution or live in overcrowded orphanages or become child soldiers or starve to death or get caught in war zones or die of horrible diseases or become homeless because their parents’ land has been stolen by the “extraction industry” or become street beggars or… The list goes on and on and on.

You had just better thank your lucky stars that your children were born in America and not in Uganda.

And we Americans also need to guard our children’s safety nets with our very lives and just pray that the One Percent doesn’t get their way and cut our precious safety nets off — or it will be our kids who are out there begging on the streets or living in orphanages or forced into prostitution too.

If we Americans also lost our safety nets such as medical insurance and schools and everything else that, in the past, we have pooled our money together to buy because we couldn’t afford to buy any of this on our own, then this could be also happening to us.

Scratch that. It has started to happen to us already.

Now that huge corporations have bought out our government lock, stock and barrel and have made it work for them instead of for us? Now we Americans are no longer unique. Now we, like the Ugandans before us, are also fast becoming merely one more group of residents of what Chris Hedges calls corporate “sacrifice zones”.

In Uganda, it costs a whole bunch of money for children to attend public elementary schools. Have you noticed how our corporate-owned government is already charging a whole bunch of money to attend public universities here? So. Will they soon start charging us a whole bunch of money to attend public elementary schools here as well, like they do in Uganda? Guess what? It’s already happened

And what if you lose your job in America, now a distinct possibility? You still might be able to survive by feeding your kids with food stamps and housing them through HUD subsidies. But not so in Uganda. Here you just sell your kids to a human trafficker. That’s your safety net here.

I love Uganda. It’s a wonderful country and people here really do try to help each other and the government here is also really trying hard to keep its finger in the dike that holds back human misery. But let me tell you, aside from possible help from a few foreign NGOs, ultimately you sink or swim on your own here. And now the Republicans are telling us that we too need to man up and be responsible for ourselves instead of relying on a “nanny state” — while the GOP itself never applies these rules to its own, blatantly stealing our tax money to buy vacation homes in Monaco and the Caymans

It’s time to tell the One Percent that they also need to stand on their own two feet too — no more government safety nets and free subsidies and handouts for them. Or, better still; let’s just send all of THEM off to beg in the streets of Uganda.

PS: On a lighter side (sort of), there are so many orphanages here in Uganda that one sometimes wonders if there are any parents left here at all. So I went off to visit an orphanage and had a wonderful time having cute little babies crawling all over me. Babies everywhere — smiling and cooing. Plus I got to talk with many American couples who had come to Uganda to adopt one of these cuties. Good for them.

PPS: With the help of Global Exchange representatives, I was also able to meet with members of a UN agency in Kampala that deals human trafficking in Uganda, and to learn a whole bunch of stuff dealing with that particular scourge. Here are my notes on the subject:

“The Karamoja region in northeastern Uganda has the most children being trafficked into Kampala. Why? Because Karamoja is the most unstable area in Uganda — due to poverty and war.” Karamoja also has many “sacrifice zones” because the “extraction industry” is in full swing here too.

“Aunts and uncles of these Karamojong children arrive back home from Kampala and look relatively better-dressed and more well off. Receiving 10,000 shillings a month (approximately ten dollars) doesn’t mean too much to us — but it is a fortune to these parents. And so the desperate parents trust them and give them their children to take back to Kampala, to hopefully have a chance to get an education, learn a skill and have a better life.

“And so the children are loaded onto trucks and buses and brought here. And nobody ever stops these trucks to ask, ‘Where are the parents of these children?’ Plus you cannot stop people from moving around. People do have the right to go where they want if they have documents.

“But what the traffickers neglect to tell the children is about the deplorable conditions they will find themselves in once they get to Kampala. They are sent out onto the streets to beg, for instance. And there is always a watcher or ‘street mother’ nearby who makes sure that the children always have their hands stretched out to beg. And if they don’t beg they are beaten, so they soon learn to stretch their hands out — even in their sleep.”

These children are brutalized, beaten and sexually abused. They ‘rent’ tiny spaces on the floors of small crowded rooms for 200 shillings a night. The girls, after age 12, are then forced into prostitution, and the boys start picking up scrap metal or go into petty theft.

“Sporadically children are rounded up by the police and then warehoused with little or no food. Then they are taken back and dumped in Karamoja again. But there is no life for them in Karamoja either. Are they being provided with schools, counseling, housing, etc. once they return? No.”

When the children are repatriated, they are sometimes given a package consisting of a small amount of money, a few clothes and a mattress. So then people there started sending their kids to Kampala in order to just get the package.

“This is the status of our work to prevent domestic trafficking right now: We are concentrating on case management, social integration and raising public awareness such as how people can protect themselves from traffickers. To this effect, we hold outdoor video screening of trafficking documentaries in the villages, and one famous pop singer here has even written a song about it.”

Regarding deterrence, this UN agency is also working with the police in Kampala in order to train them how to best deal with a bad situation. And although a number of the children taken in routine police sweeps really want to go back to Karamoja, some don’t because they know that they will just be going back to the same bad situation they came from. And some parents don’t want their children to come back for the same reason; because they won’t be able to put food in their mouths.

“Karamojong children have been trafficked for over 20 years now. This should have been stopped long ago — but there is sometimes discrimination against the Karamojong here in Uganda.

And with regard to the subject of sexual trafficking, people here in Kampala do know that it goes on — and even people in really high places are sometimes involved. There is currently one man who has instigated a class-action suit on behalf of women who were trafficked internationally, claiming that the government did nothing about it. In another instance, recently 600 trafficked Ugandan women were stuck in Malaysia and the government was made aware of this situation when a media spotlight was shown on their plight.

What is the definition of trafficking? Apparently it has to do with exploitation and failed expectations. Traffickers promise one thing and deliver another.

And sometimes even traffickers delude themselves too, thinking that “I’m improving someone’s life” or “This is a way of life where we live; has been done by everyone for a long long time.”

Uganda’s new human trafficking law, passed in 2009, may not be as effective as it could be because it is too punitive in regard to punishment. People might think twice about turning in a relative if the punishment is life imprisonment.

“But there is always hope. It’s a big problem but we have a task force for it and are working on solving it. But the underlying problem is unemployment and poverty, which puts young people at risk.”

Ah. Unemployment and poverty. Could this mean that when the GOP gets its way and Americans too become just one more vast source of cheap labor, that there will be more human trafficking in America as well?

“With regard to international trafficking, Asia and the Middle East is where trafficking is really picking up — where there is a demand for both prostitutes and cheap domestic help.

“Regarding the rehabilitation of former prostitutes, a person who has gone through prostitution is really hard to get back into the regular work force. We used to give them cash to help them start a new life and they would run through it in a few weeks. Now we give them aid in kind — help them set up businesses. But it’s hard. It takes a long time to build the ethos for this.”

And most people forced into prostitution end up HIV positive and have little access to meds.

“Some former prostitutes return to the life because of the stigma at home. Some go off to South Sudan and are prostitutes there. Repatriation is hard. Do the women themselves want to come back from this life? Are there funds to help them come back? Of the 600 in Malaysia, we have only repatriated 15 so far. But once they are back, we help them to access services.”

This agency uses the same approach to international trafficking that it uses for domestic trafficking, and also offers ways for victims to come back to Uganda — such as giving cards to young women at airports with a number to call if they need help.

“If girls try to escape from their situation, they may be physically abused. And the traffickers also have their passports and may have ties to officials there so that there is no one the girls can report to.” The UN is also trying to make other countries aware regarding how to handle people who have been trafficked.

And Ugandan women trafficked to China pose a particular problem for Uganda, which depends on China for aid. They don’t want to offend China and so must tread lightly.

“People are so desperate in their situations here that they are willing to believe what the traffickers say. So as long as the root causes exist, trafficking will exist. And it is like another form of slavery. Slavery was abolished a long time ago but it still exists. It has just taken another form.”

Most international cases of trafficking involve girls over the age of 18 due to passport requirements.

“And sometimes those being trafficked turn around and become traffickers themselves because you have gone through abuse for so long that you become desensitized. You don’t look forward or look back because you are so beaten down — and you start to accept the life you are in. It’s the Stockholm syndrome: Identify with the abuser to the point that they protect their traffickers and become traffickers themselves.

“These victims see their life as gone and they see no other way back for themselves. Victims have to be willing to change — and many of them are not.”

And Karamoja is still the greatest source of trafficking victims. “The poverty in Karamoja is obvious when you go there. The droughts of the 1970s and 1980s began this downward slide. It’s all about poverty. And the HIV pandemic has left many child-headed households as well. And the wars have had a big effect too — cultures there have been disintegrated by war and by drought.

“Originally Karamojong kids came to the cities looking for work. And the trafficking grew from there. And it is also an outgrowth of the custom of people having many children in order to share the work — so that now there are still many children to provide for but less work to support them.”

I’ve also heard that, as more and more minerals are being found in the Karamoja region, more and more farmers are being tossed off their lands by the “extraction industry”.

“Globalization has also been a large factor in another way, in that development projects bring in a whole new supply of johns. And it then becomes a matter of distinction of power. If you try to stop the Chinese johns, then it becomes a political issue.

“Women who get too old to be prostitutes may become madams, pimps, ‘street mothers’ and traffickers themselves. They stay in the game but in a different capacity. Many of them, however, flat-out die. HIV, gang rapes, poverty.

“The Ugandan military supplies major clients and johns. Camp followers are common. But that’s starting to change as soldiers who contract HIV are not being promoted.”

And it isn’t just poor people in Uganda who are being trafficked either. Recent university graduates without jobs have been answering what appear to be legitimate employment offers in the newspapers for work abroad in their fields. However, somehow only the young pretty female ones get hired — and then find themselves chained to a whorehouse in China or the Middle East.

After talking with the UN agency representatives, I then went off to Busia, on the border with Kenya, to learn about cross-border trafficking there — where the border is porous.

“Trafficking isn’t just about buying and selling human beings,” said a local expert on the subject. “It’s about any form of exploitation. Sexual trafficking is also a problem here because of all the long-distance truckers who come through Busia while bringing goods from China and the Kenyan ports into Uganda, the Congo and the C.A.R.”

Because Busia is now a boom town, women and girls come here seeking employment. But once they can’t find work and have no other choice, they are forced into prostitution.

After meeting with the trafficking expert, I then hopped onto the back of a bicycle for hire and set out for the Kenyan border itself, hoping to score an interview with an Obama. But no such luck. The crossing was too crowded. But I did meet one young woman who exactly fit the trafficking profile — she was young, naive, beautiful and desperately searching for work. Optimistic and bright-eyed and hopeful, she was on her way to a new job interview.

After all that I had just learned, I just wanted to scream at her, “Run, girl, run! Go back to your home. Go back now — before it’s too late.” But I didn’t. And she probably wouldn’t have listened to me either. What would have been her other option? No safety nets for her spring to mind.


For more from Jane Stillwater check out her blog @

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One thought on “Children of Uganda: They have NO safety net!”
  1. While reading your article, overwhelming with the obstacles faced by a people completely over-run by poverty, the first question that came to mind was, “what is their economic base?” You answered it about mid-way through; farming and the johnny-come-lately kingpin of the worst type of corruption; mineral mining. In some ways, the mineral miners are far worse than the oil barons. Since oil is extracted to provide energy, and there is more than one way to provide it; oil companies rule by the practical aspect that the more people they have dependent on oil based energy, the wealthier they will be, so they use enough caution to ensure they have a solid customer base.

    Mineral miners couldn’t care less. They operate from the exclusive knowledge that minerals don’t supply absolute necessities; they supply the ways and means of elitism. A person living in a mud and straw hut, scratching a livelihood from the soil, has absolutely no value to the mineral extractor, as that person is not going to buy expensive jewelry, is not going to invest in high-tech applications and can only dream of owning an automobile. The best thing to do is remove them or enslave them for the precious minerals.

    Unlike energy sources, the value of minerals is determined by its rarity. It would not behoove a mineral extractor to announce, “oh, we have tons of diamonds (or rubies, or gold, or any other mineral used for decorative purposes) here,” because then the diamonds would no longer have elitist value; which is far more important to mineral extractors than considerations for high-tech, energy or industrial use. The only real solution for Uganda, as well as all countries falling into economic ruin, is to seize and control their own natural resources. We cannot eat diamonds, therefore, the only real value diamonds have are in industrial use.

    Because you brought it up, i did want to make one comment concerning “nanny” legislation. It absolutely amazes me how spin doctors are able to take a word and twist its meaning to their own benefit. Nanny legislation was originally aimed at laws placed into effect for “our own good”, which are actually laws that intervene with freedom of choice. The Republican platform is notorious for backing these no choice laws; no assisted suicide for terminal diseases, prosecution for drug-use victimless crimes, no protection for homosexuals and gay marriage – it doesn’t matter what your choice is on the matter. The point is, as an adult of sound mind, you should be allowed the choice. Anything less than this particular freedom is a nanny law.

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