Working to better the lives of street children

AN ALEXANDRA Park woman has set up a charity to ensure that street children in Uganda have the same legal rights as British children if they find themselves in trouble with the law

Charlotte Newton

AN ALEXANDRA Park woman has set up a charity to ensure that street children in Uganda have the same legal rights as British children if they find themselves in trouble with the law.

Social worker Phyl Jones set up Youth Justice Support Uganda because of the alarming number of street children in that country who are arrested and imprisoned without legal representation.

Although Uganda has a similar justice system to the UK, there is no legal aid. So street children are often under represented, unaware of their rights and vulnerable to false accusations.

Children who are picked up by police for pretty crimes can spend days in prison without any legal representation or even a parent being informed of their whereabouts.

Youth Justice Support Uganda ensures these children are treated fairly within the criminal justice system, that their legal rights are upheld and that they are offered alternatives to lives of crime.

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Mrs Jones, 63, said: "The youth justice system in Britain works on the basis that the more youngsters that are kept out of jail, the better.

"Uganda is very strong on human rights, but because it is a developing country, practical issues - such as a lack of telephones in police stations or the fact that a family does not have any transport to get to the police station - can result in a child being left in prison.

"YJSU is made up of social workers and lawyers. They visit children in prison, give them clean clothes and provide them with legal representation. Our main aim is to ensure that children don't get brutalised in jail."

Mrs Jones lives in Albert Road, near to Alexandra Palace. An experienced social worker, she first visited Uganda in 1998. She said: "I've lived in Highgate and Muswell Hill all my life but I've always wanted to travel. I just woke up one morning and decided it was time for me to move further than the three-mile radius I had lived since childhood."

Mrs Jones travelled to Masaka after VSO matched her up with the "perfect job" as a social worker at a day centre for street children.

The centre offered breakfast, schooling and a place for the many boys who find themselves on the street to wash. It endeavoured to stop youngsters from turning to a life of crime by their early 20s, by raising their aspirations and, in some cases, reuniting them with their parents.

"There are hundreds of boys who find themselves on the streets in Uganda. Although they may come from happy, loving homes, the grinding poverty means that parents often encourage their sons to seek work from an early age.

"The children find themselves living together in the open air or sometimes they'll offer to sweep a shop in return for shelter."

It was while working in the day centre that Mrs Jones became aware of the many street kids who were finding themselves in trouble with the law, frequently unfairly, and receiving no legal representation whatsoever. There are now 10 trustees in Britain who are helping to support the organisation, of which Mrs Jones is the chair. There is also a team of people working in Uganda, including a project manager, advisory committee, which includes the head of legal aid in Kamapala, a senior magistrate, a probation officer, police and three NGOs.

Anyone wishing to make a contribution to Youth Justice Uganda should quote the bank details Barclays Bank PLC; sort code: 20-57-06; Youth Justice Support Uganda; account no: 80010111. The charity number is: 1122043.

Factfile on Uganda

o Uganda is in eastern Africa and shares its borders with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Tanzania.

o 28.2 million people (2007) live in Uganda, 31 per cent of whom live below the national poverty line (2005/06).

o Per capita income is US$300 (2006).

o The rate of pupils completing primary education has decreased from 63 per cent in 2001 to 48 per cent in 2006.

o Average life expectancy (Population and Housing Census 2002) in Uganda is 50 (male 49, female 52).

o Mortality before the age of five is 137 per 1,000 (2006).

o HIV/AIDS prevalence among 15 to 49-year-olds is 6.4 per cent in 2004/05.

o Northern Uganda is seriously affected by the 21-year long Lords Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency with approximately 1.3m people displaced.

o The population growth rate is estimated at 3.2 per cent (Uganda 2002 Population and Housing Census).

o The Presidential and Parliamentary elections held on February 23 2006 were the first multi-party elections in Uganda for

25 years.

Source: Uganda Factsheet Leading the British Government's fight against world poverty. Last updated: January 2008.

Case study on Vincent, aged 13

Mrs Jones explained how police rounded one 13-year-old boy, Vincent, up from the streets of Masaka.

She said: "Vincent was rounded up and taken to prison, without charge, where he was set to work on a rich man's garden, digging all day with only one meal of porridge.

"We heard about Vincent from another street child, approached the police and received a release order. When Vincent was released without charge, he was found to have untreated septic wounds.

He returned to school and resumed contact with his mother.

"He is now 20, has spent the last three years training to be a nurse and, with our help, is due to qualify this year."