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Our Year 2021 Stories from the streets of Gulu

Message from the Executive Director

The year 2021 was as tough as 2020. This was because the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a programming crisis but, more importantly, it brought a crisis for the population we support.

While the crisis disrupted most of our daily operations in ways unimaginable, it also presented a silver lining for realigning the nature of Hashtag Gulu’s project. In partnership with St. Phillips Health Centre, Vivo International and others, Hashtag Gulu continued to deliver quality health awareness programmes to ensure that street-connected children and youths can have access to medical services and change their health-seeking behaviour  through using these services.

Read More.

Summary of achievements in 2021

  • Established an outreach clinic in Gulu City.
  • Set up a farm in Paicho sub-county, Gulu district.
  • Established two workshops for carpentry and tailoring.
  • Trained 39 SCCY’s in hairdressing; tailoring and garment-cutting; carpentry and joinery; and bricklaying and concrete practice.
  • Trained 10 SCCY in horticulture and animal husbandry.
  • Employed 7 SCCY to work in the tailoring and carpentry workshop.
  • Employed 3 SCCY as farm workers.
  • Reintegrated 17 SCCYs with their families.
  • Screened over 200 SCCYs for various medical conditions.
  • Joined the City Gender-Based Violence Working Group.
  • Joined the District Chain-Link Committee.

Financial performance

Life skills empowerment

Four training programmes in hands-on skills in carpentry and joinery, bricklaying and concrete practice, and tailoring and garment-cutting and hairdressing were organised focusing on street-connected children and youths between the ages of 14 and 25 and living or working within Gulu City. A total of 39 (female and male) out of the 52 who initially registered for the training completed it. The three-month hands-on skills training was geared towards offering basic knowledge in carpentry, construction, tailoring and hairdressing to the trainees to enable them to have introductory knowledge that can come in handy should they choose to earn a decent living and reintegrate into the community. The trainees reported that they felt the training had enabled them to reflect on their lifestyles and how to utilise the new skills they had acquired to transform their lives and behaviour.

Read More.

Psycho-social support

In 2021, Hashtag Gulu strengthened its partnership with VIVO International, a non-profit non-governmental organisation (NGO) with experience in the field of trauma counselling and therapy, to provide therapy and capacity enhancement to her beneficiaries (SSCY) and staff members. This saw the work of providing free trauma counselling and therapy which started during the lockdown continue even after the lockdown was eased by the Government of Uganda.

For three days at the beginning of 2021, Vivo International trained eight staff members of Hashtag Gulu on the following topics: Introduction to traumatic stress and its mental health consequences; Introduction to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); Children’s needs, attachment and developmental stages and effects of abuse, neglect and traumatisation; Vulnerabilities and possible protective factors of growing children; Behaviour and communication skills when working with street-connected children and youth; and Basic counselling techniques. In delivering this training, a participatory, process-oriented approach, based on the principles of adult learning, was applied. Read More.

Reintegration

In 2021, 17 street-connected children and youths were reunited with their families as a result of 24 mediation visits carried out. Various factors push or pull young people to the streets and, whenever possible, our team moves quickly to make sure these young persons are reunited with their families before they get accustomed to life on the streets. Whereas some success is registered on this front, sometimes both mediation and reintegration fail to the detriment of the young person, especially the ones who were determined to return and live at home provided they are welcomed and accepted.

In Agago, Jovan was reunited with his family, and he currently lives with his grandmother. He goes to a nearby school because his father has abandoned him and refused to pay his school fees again. His mother, who is also alive, remarried and lives with another man who does not want anything to do with Jovan. His goal is to complete school and make his grandmother and Peter, his sponsor, proud.

Read More.

Health

In September 2021, Hashtag Gulu launched the Improving the Physical, Mental Well-being and Sexual and Reproductive Health of Street-Connected Children and Youths in Gulu Project in partnership with St. Phillips Health Centre and Vivo International with funding from Eirene Suisse and Fedevaco.

The project aimed at enhancing the right to health of SCCYs in Gulu and seeks to increase access to and the utilization of physical and mental health care services for SCCYs in Gulu.

Under this project, we established an outreach clinic in the middle of Gulu City to serve SCCYs. In the first week of opening, over 226 SCCYs were screened comprehensively for various medical conditions, ranging from malaria, STIs, anaemia and wounds that require dressing, to peptic ulcers, acute diarrhea, skin infections, hepatitis B and pneumonia. Read More

Advocacy

To work with the communities in Gulu and spearhead change in mindset and systems towards streets-connected children as well as seek out community-centred, inclusive and sustainable solutions, we have continued to engage with the communities around Gulu City.

Read More.

 

What people said about our work in 2021

“This year I lost all my children’s school fees to these boys. This issue is real and these children need to be supported.”

Abalo Linda

“It is so unfortunate that oftentimes, we judge them without hearing the other side of their stories. No one willingly chooses street life. They are mostly pushed to the wall by the situations they are in and the street becomes the only available option.”

Okello Geoffrey

“These young people called aguu need proper sensitisation and I love the way you guys are struggling with it, though it still needs a call for the majority to eradicate it from our city.”

Steven Tenna

Message from the Executive Director

The year 2021 was as tough as 2020. This was because the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a programming crisis but, more importantly, it brought a crisis for the population we support.

While the crisis disrupted most of our daily operations in ways unimaginable, it also presented a silver lining for realigning the nature of Hashtag Gulu’s project. In partnership with St. Phillips Health Centre, Vivo International and others, Hashtag Gulu continued to deliver quality health awareness programmes to ensure that street-connected children and youths can have access to medical services and change their health-seeking behaviour  through using these services.

The restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the virus meant that many young people had to stay at home with their parents. Unfortunately, the parents were equally not working and yet had to care for the entire household for two years without the break and rest that school term brings. This was another problem in itself because it brought with it untold pressure, violence, poverty and hunger as a result of financial stress. It also exerted a mental health toll owing to the lockdowns which, in the end, forced more young people on to the streets.

Going through this difficult time allowed us to adapt our programmes to respond to the needs of street-connected children and youths. Our street team intensified their street walk, we sought out and mobilised them, even in their hideouts, to spread information about free health care and equally sensitise them to their right to health. On the other hand, we were able to reach out to families of this young people and carry out mediation and even reunite families where acceptance was possible.

COVID-19 did not only require us to work with more flexibility, creativity and trust, but also strengthened our relationships with other civil society actors as well as local authorities. This saw us join the City Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Working Group as well as the District Chain-Link Committee where, respectively, the issues of rampant violence against children and women as well as legal and security issues are discussed and prioritised.

Similarly, we were able to establish our sustainability project in Paicho, where we now carry out farming (animal and horticulture) as well as train youths to appreciate the value of agriculture and adopt it as a way of life and of earning a decent livelihood.

Despite the unprecedented year of COVID-19 challenges, we did not give up. Instead, we conquered, with your unwavering support, which allowed us to adapt, be flexible and overcome many of the challenges.

For young people to stay home and not look at the streets as a place they can depend on, we must always allow them to be children, support them, guide and correct them with love if they are going astray but, above all, be well-intentioned with our parenting even of children of our departed kinsmen. And maybe – just maybe – we will redeem the situation.

Ojok Michael

Executive Director

 

Life Skills Empowerment

The Bricklaying and construction instructor showing a trainee how to use a construction tool

Four training programmes in hands-on skills in carpentry and joinery, bricklaying and concrete practice, and tailoring and garment-cutting and hairdressing were organised focusing on street-connected children and youths between the ages of 14 and 25 and living or working within Gulu City. A total of 39 (female and male) out of the 52 who initially registered for the training completed it. The three-month hands-on skills training was geared towards offering basic knowledge in carpentry, construction, tailoring and hairdressing to the trainees to enable them to have introductory knowledge that can come in handy should they choose to earn a decent living and reintegrate into the community. The trainees reported that they felt the training had enabled them to reflect on their lifestyles and how to utilise the new skills they had acquired to transform their lives and behaviour. Before completion of the training, some of the trainees, especially in the carpentry class, were already making money from the sales of products such as office chairs, dining tables and beds that they made during their training. On the other hand, the construction class constructed our outreach clinic as well as their training shed. Others have since gone on to work at commercial construction sites, including our facility in Paicho sub-county.

As a result of a partnership with The Recreation Project (TRP) which saw the project facilitate soft life skills training, they went on to host our graduation ceremonies at their centre in Lacor,  where our trainees were allowed to take part in various recreational activities as well as do team-building with their parents and guardians. The ceremony was attended by representatives from Elephante Commons, TRP, TakaTaka Plastics, parents and guardians in addition to Hashtag Gulu staff members and trainers.

A trainee curving out holes to join two timbers

With support from the Rotary Club of Aigle, we established a carpentry and tailoring workshop to provide work opportunities for our trainees. Seven of the SCCY trained in 2021 (3 carpentry and 4 tailoring) got opportunities to be pioneer workers in the newly established workshop before moving on to do their thing. One girl has since been employed by Maga-Maga Skills training institute as a tailoring instructor.

Ladies learning during one of their tailoring and garment cutting class

10 out of the 12 SCCYs who were initially recruited also completed training in horticulture and animal husbandry under the Improved Livelihood for Street-connected Youth through Sustainable Farming Project. As a result, 3 of the 10 were employed to work on the Hashtag Gulu farm, whereas seven were supported with two piglets each to start their projects upon their return home.

Psychosocial support

In 2021, Hashtag Gulu strengthened its partnership with VIVO International, a non-profit non-governmental organisation (NGO) with experience in the field of trauma counselling and therapy, to provide therapy and capacity enhancement to her beneficiaries (SSCY) and staff members. This saw the work of providing free trauma counselling and therapy which started during the lockdown continue even after the lockdown was eased by the Government of Uganda.

For three days at the beginning of 2021, Vivo International trained eight staff members of Hashtag Gulu on the following topics: Introduction to traumatic stress and its mental health consequences; Introduction to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); Children’s needs, attachment and developmental stages and effects of abuse, neglect and traumatisation; Vulnerabilities and possible protective factors of growing children; Behaviour and communication skills when working with street-connected children and youth; and Basic counselling techniques. In delivering this training, a participatory, process-oriented approach, based on the principles of adult learning, was applied.

Additionally, Vivo International counsellors conducted 23 psychological assessment interviews with street-connected children and youth who volunteered to be interviewed. Out of 23 interviewed participants, 14 SCCYs between 12 and 25 years of age completed trauma therapy. Issues ranging from PTSD to highly aggressive behaviour were discovered and treated. The children and youths received psychotherapeutic treatment through the trauma-focused approach of Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET) and also underwent anger management sessions.

Together with Vivo, PACTA and Thrive Gulu, we carry out monthly sensitisation campaigns against alcohol and drug abuse among the SCCY in Gulu City. It should be noted that most SCCYs use drugs as a mechanism to cope with the stress and challenges of life such as hunger, ill health, peer pressure, curiosity and the lack of a sense of belonging, among many others. The line between usage and abuse is so thin that it is almost non-existent to them and, therefore, drug usage becomes a daily routine. Some of the common drugs on the streets of Gulu include marijuana, jet fuel, khat (mairungi), banned cigarettes, shisha and cocaine. One of our biggest challenges is the open sale of some of these drugs, both in town and on its outskirts, with some of the dealers and places they deal from even known. This makes access, even for children, possible – and cheap at that –  and once they are intoxicated, it is easy for them to engage in various crimes, including theft, pickpocketing, robbery and even murder.

Reintegration

Ojok weeding his cotton garden in Pader after returning home in October 2021

In 2021, 17 street-connected children and youths were reunited with their families as a result of 24 mediation visits carried out. Various factors push or pull young people to the streets and, whenever possible, our team moves quickly to make sure these young persons are reunited with their families before they get accustomed to life on the streets. Whereas some success is registered on this front, sometimes both mediation and reintegration fail to the detriment of the young person, especially the ones who were determined to return and live at home provided they are welcomed and accepted.

 

In Agago, Jovan was reunited with his family, and he currently lives with his grandmother. He goes to a nearby school because his father has abandoned him and refused to pay his school fees again. His mother, who is also alive, remarried and lives with another man who does not want anything to do with Jovan. His goal is to complete school and make his grandmother and Peter, his sponsor, proud.

Jovan and his grandmother at her home in Olung, Agago district

 

In Omoro, Kennedy wanted to return and live at home with his uncle, but his attempts weren’t  successful. He thinks his uncle just does not want to have him back home ever again. To that end, he had this to say: My father was an only son; I am also his only son. When my father died, one of my paternal uncles took over the responsibility for all the property that should have been mine. Right now, he wants to give me only a small space to put up a grass-thatched house and grow some food. He also said I cannot go back there alone; I have to look for my mother so that both of us can return to live there. I think he is scared of welcoming me back home because he thinks I might demand what is my rightful inheritance.

In Gulu City, Samuel reconnected with his paternal aunt’s family. However, he faces strong opposition from his father’s elder brother, who wants to sell off the property left for the children by their grandmother. “I am 17 years old now, but I started living on the streets in 2014 after losing my mother. I was only nine years old then. My father died when I was four years old and since that time, life has never been the same. I was told of how my father was a rich businessman in Bweyale Town. When he died, his property was brought and handed over to his brother, who was supposed to take care of me and my siblings, but he has since turned into my worst nightmare. In addition to refusing to take care of us, not paying our school fees and chasing my mother away from her home when she was still alive etc., he also wants to take away the only house our late grandmother left for us to live in. He has severally brought people to buy that small piece of land on which the house sits. I think something is watching over me because, for years now, no buyer he has brought has ever come back to finalise the purchase of the property.

I have an aunt who loves me and tries to be there for me, but her brother is not happy about it and they are now enemies because of me. My uncle claims that I am not his brother’s son and that my late mother might have forced me on his late brother while they were together.” Samuel

Like Jovan, Kennedy and Samuel, many young people living on the streets desire to return home but face additional problems or encounter unwelcoming relatives who make it hard for them to reintegrate. However, there is always hope where such resistance is met with a strong will to stay home and a supportive family member, usually the grandmother.

Health

Olara Moses after discharge from the hospital

 

In September 2021, Hashtag Gulu launched the Improving the Physical, Mental Well-being and Sexual and Reproductive Health of Street-Connected Children and Youths in Gulu Project in partnership with St. Phillips Health Centre and Vivo International with funding from Eirene Suisse and Fedevaco.

The project aimed at enhancing the right to health of SCCYs in Gulu and seeks to increase access to and the utilisation of physical and mental health care services for SCCYs in Gulu.

Under this project, we established an outreach clinic in the middle of Gulu City to serve SCCYs. In the first week of opening, over 226 SCCYs were screened comprehensively for various medical conditions, ranging from malaria, STIs, anaemia and wounds that require dressing, to peptic ulcers, acute diarrhoea, skin infections, hepatitis B and pneumonia. The clinic opens two days a week on Tuesdays and Fridays and carries out  a broad range of medical check-ups and treatments for SCCYs who come to seek friendly services. This is in addition to monthly sensitisation campaigns regarding general health knowledge and sexual reproductive health, which reach out to over 300 young people in Gulu. For medical conditions that the clinic cannot handle, referrals are made to either St. Phillips Health Centre at the Diocese of Northern Uganda, Gulu Regional Referral Hospital or Lacor Hospital and any other facility deemed suitable.

Together with various health service providers including TASO, Marie Stopes, St. Phillips Health Center and Reproductive Health Uganda, we equally carryout monthly sensitisation campaigns on the general health conditions and health seeking behaviors of SCCYs in Gulu City and this include physical hygiene, risky sexual behaviors, family planning, oral and dental hygiene, sexually transmitted infections among others.

Let it be known that most SCCYs fall ill and resort to self-medication or drug abuse in order to feel better which is a temporary solution to their challenge. This is in part attributed to the stigmatizing nature of our health practitioners in public facilities as well as the high cost of proper medical care which most SCCYs cannot afford. Some SCCYs especially the female ones also engage in transactional sex and sexual relationships with their male counterparts in exchange for either protection while on the streets or other favors such as accommodation and food hence exposing themselves to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases which could easily turn detrimental to their lives in situations where one sleeps with multiple sexual partners without any remorse as is the case in our experience.

Advocacy

#Gulu Director interacting with the Aswa River Region Police PRO during a webinar to discuss street children and covid19.

To work with the communities in Gulu and spearhead change in mindset and systems towards streets-connected children as well as seek out community-centred, inclusive and sustainable solutions, we have continued to engage with the communities around Gulu City.

Dialogue with health service providers

One dialogue with health service providers was held to change the health-seeking behaviours of streets children in Gulu. It brought together representatives of both private and public health facilities, i.e., Laroo Health Centre, TASO, Aywee Heath Centre, St. Phillips Health Centre, Vivo International and several smaller health facilities. During this dialogue, we discussed how to work together in future, but also explored reasons why SCCYs are not seeking treatment. It is important to note that the smaller clinics, especially the ones located in close proximity to SCCYs, provide some basic medical care but have reservations about the SCCYs because often the latter do not pay those services; they instead opt to run away after getting treatment or medication. The participants proposed that a referral pathway should be established for only those SCCYs who might want to be treated at those facilities.

Community dialogue

A youth leader addressing the community during a dialogue

One community dialogue with 140 community members and 1 focus group discussion (FGD) with 19 community leaders were held in Forest sub-ward in Gulu City. Forest sub-ward is one of the most highly populated slums and borders other slum areas in Gulu City and, together, they  are home to SCCYs and other vulnerable segments of the community. The dialogue sought to explore the reasons for young people leaving home and deciding to go on the streets as well as what roles parents and the community can play to reduce the number of street children as well as the stigma of being SCCYs. Whereas the dialogue involved both community members and local leaders, the FGD was held only with leaders, including LC1 chairpersons, women and youth representatives, defence secretaries and mobilisers. In the FGD,  we discussed their roles as well as how we can work together to fight stigma and reduce the number of homeless SCCYs . This dialogue was recorded by Speak FM and played on radio for the general public to listen in and give their views.

Radio and online campaigns

Two online and three radio campaigns were conducted in 2021. A local comedy group known as Luo Comedy produced a series of dramatised comedy skits depicting life on the streets as experienced by street children and these were  watched over 39,200 times and generated over 40 comments. (See link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awqJzwCiTJg). Three radio talk shows were also held on the famous Kabake community radio programme on 102 Mega FM, where we discussed a research report on SCCYs in Gulu. A trained SCCY, now working with TakaTaka Plastics, was also involved in this talk show. Two other talk shows were held on Speak FM on 27 October during their two-hour Oyeng Yeng talk show, with some actors advocating for an end to SGBV and on 9 November 2021 during the broadcast of the recorded community dialogue to respond to questions and arising issues.

What people said about our work in 2021

 

“It is so unfortunate that oftentimes, we judge them without hearing the other side of their stories. No one willingly chooses street life. They are mostly pushed to the wall by the situations they are in and the street becomes the only available option.”  - Okello Geoffrey

“This year I lost all my children’s school fees to these boys. This issue is real and these children need to be supported.” - Abalo Linda

“These young people called aguu need proper sensitisation and I love the way you guys are struggling with it, though it still needs a call for the majority to eradicate it from our city.” - Steven Tenna

“No one in my home hates this boy. I have been taking care of him right from childhood. Paying his school fees from one school to another because he used to shift sometimes even without my knowledge. I do not know what is causing this confusion in my son. So far, he has been to the Gulu remand home twice and, on both occasions, it was because of theft. I request local leaders to help me talk to him because I suspect that his behaviour is a result of associating with bad peers while he was still living in town.” - Father to a SCCY

“While growing up, I lived on the streets for a long time and even my mother did not want me anymore, but I made up my mind to change my lifestyle after a disabled man spoke and challenged me. Right now, if someone is pointing at me and saying things behind my back, they will be referring to the old me. Parents, women and men are to blame for the rise in the number of street children. Most times, parents focus so much on providing a decent livelihood for their children, that they leave home very early and return in the evening when a child is already asleep. Such a parent will have no clue about what that child was up to during the day. So, I urge Hashtag Gulu and any other organisation that is involved in rehabilitating street children to focus on the very young ones because the older ones cannot easily change. Some of these young people go to live on the streets not of their own free will, but due to many factors such as property and family wrangles, violence at home etc. And from what I have observed, some parents have resorted to heavy drinking and can no longer offer good advice to their children because they are intoxicated all the time.” - Saddam

“The people know the challenges they are dealing with in their communities when we talk about street children, its causes, insecurity and what can be done to redress the problem. Most of them even have possible solutions to those challenges, however drastic some of those solutions might be. Often, these people also feel let down by those charged with the responsibility of leading and securing them.” - Dialogue participant

“In 2012, I lost four of my family members (three sons and a daughter-in-law), all within the space of one month. I felt like dying, too, because of the pain and grief, but I looked at my grandchildren and realised I was all they had left. That made me change my mind and it has kept me alive and strong up to now. My grandson Ojok survived the deadly nodding syndrome disease, but I lost him to the streets. Ojok showed symptoms and signs of the deadly disease when he was 13 but, luckily, he responded to treatment and got better. In 2019, while at Lacor Hospital, where he was taken to donate blood for his elder sister who was critically ill, Ojok disappeared from among us. We searched everywhere for him until we gave up because there was nothing else I could do but fold my hands and wait for his return if I lived long enough. I prayed day and night for his safety wherever he was. When my grandson disappeared from us back then, the other children I was taking care of became unruly. I had to graze the animals by myself, which stressed me a lot and equally affected my physical and mental health. This made me lose strength and get depressed. I went to Caritas Gulu to ask them to help me look for my grandson but they couldn’t find him because he was known by another name on the streets. Caritas asked me to bring his photo. I went to Awere St. Kizito Primary School where he had been in Primary Six before going on the streets. The administrators refused to give me his passport photos so there was nothing else I could do. Today, I am the happiest human being and very grateful to Hashtag Gulu for bringing my grandson back home to me.”  - Pilimena Owiny

Ever since my grandson came back home, he has been living here peacefully. Sometimes I think because he is not well and still healing but I have seen him stay up to now, when his leg is in better condition. The only challenge here is that my neighbour likes sending his security guards to arrest my children. Right now, as I speak, it is only Moses and his sister, who has a mental illness, who are staying here. The rest of the children are scattered for fear of being beaten or arrested. My son left home and went to live on the streets because of bad friends. Those friends even influenced him to leave school. I am happy that he is now back home with me. I have advised him to keep away from those friends so that he does not get into trouble as he did previously.- Loda Nono

I met the father of my first child when we were still living in the camp. The fruit of that relationship is this boy you have returned home today. When I separated from his father, he got another wife, and I also went with another man. While my new husband never wanted my son to live with him, my ex-husband's wife also did not want to look after my boy. So my mother is the one who took care of him until his father came and took him away again, only for my boy to run away from home due to misunderstandings and mistreatment there. Life has been very challenging for me because the man I went to live with and produced five other children for also became negligent and violent to me and my children. I am the sole caretaker of our family. I use two small gardens to farm and feed the family. This has left me unable to look for my son ever since I heard of his disappearance from his father’s home. I was always scared of the worst things that could happen to him until one day, when I went for an antenatal check-up, someone told me that my son was alive but was living on the streets of Gulu. This greatly distressed me, but there was nothing I could do except pray for his safety, considering what I had heard people say about Gulu and how street children – or aguu as they are locally known – are treated. I had even given up on seeing him alive again until you people brought him back home. Thank you for bringing my son back home.Christine

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