Innocent Kirungi was fourteen when he was murdered.
Over several years, the young boy had taken to running away from home, living rough on the streets and stealing. In early December 2009, his father, at loss with how to reform his ways and deeply concerned about his sonâ€™s well-being, appealed to the local authorities, with whom he decided to take his child to the district remand home in order for him to be rehabilitated.
On his second day at Ihungu Remand Home, Innocent was taken with other children to work on the potato plantation of police officer David Abitekaniza. Not accustomed to hard labour, Innocent found himself lagging behind the other boys, for which the matron, Rose Mpairwe, ordered them to beat him. They beat him so severely that he was rendered unconscious.
Then, on the matronâ€™s orders, they began to bury him alive. Fortunately, several witnesses ran to alert the local authorities, who came to the site and ordered for the boy to be exhumed. He was still alive and was taken back to the remand home. Later that day, Abitekaniza came and threatened the Local Council leaders, saying that he would arrest them for criminal trespass (after they had come on his property to exhume the boy).
The next day, the children were once again taken to work on Abitekanizaâ€™s property. There, Innocent was beaten once more. A girl went to the LC leaders to alert them, but this time they were too afraid to intervene because they feared Abitekaniza. Innocent died hours later due to complications from the beatings.
Ironically, Innocentâ€™s father, Patrick Wandera, originally agreed to refer his son to the remand home as a last resort, for fear that if he continued his rough lifestyle, he would be â€œkilled by errant people on the streetâ€.
Instead, the very institution Wandera thought would protect his son from harm managed to take his life after only three days. How could this happen?
The rights of the child
Innocentâ€™s story is a horrifying example of the disregard for childrenâ€™s rights that has prevailed in the Ihungu remand home. Indeed, upon investigation, it was revealed that the remand home has been sending children to work on peopleâ€™s farms since 2005.Â
Some of the authorities at the remand home justified that the boys were doing this work because they required money to buy food or blankets, which they needed at the remand home.
However, the Ihungu remand home houses around 32 kids and is said to receive about Shs 500, 000 per month, which by many accounts should be enough to cover the cost of food for the children.
The remand home also lacked the structure and security that should be expected of a place that is meant to rehabilitate children and adolescents. For example, a fact-finding missionÂ conducted by Platform for Labour Action revealed that around 6:30pm on Feb. 16, 2010, the children in the remand home were left alone and some had left the home and were loitering in the village.
Furthermore, in Innocentâ€™s case, there seems to have been a mistake in referring the child to a remand home. As noted by the probation officer, Mugisha Mugungu Milton, remand homes are only for children who have committed offences, yet Innocent was not in conflict with the law.
The Childrenâ€™s Act of 1997 outlines very clearly the steps that are to be taken in a case like Innocentâ€™s. On the application of a probation officer or an authorised person, a family and childrenâ€™s court can make a â€œcare orderâ€ whereby the child is sent to an â€œapproved homeâ€ which â€œshall provide substitute family care for a child until such time as the parents of the child are able to provide adequate care to meet his or her basic needsâ€.
The grounds for making such an order include â€œthe child being beyond parental controlâ€, which was exactly Innocentâ€™s case. Why did the local authorities authorise for Innocent to be placed in the remand home? Why wasnâ€™t Innocent taken to an â€œapproved homeâ€?
In the Childrenâ€™s Act of 1997, it is clearly stated that â€œit is the general duty of every local government council from the village to the district level to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within its areaâ€. The government has yet to comment on their spectacular failure to do just that for Innocent Kirungi. Indeed, Wandera also noted that the chief administrative officer has yet to come up with an explanation of the incident, even though his office was supposed to write a comprehensive report of what transpired.
Beyond even providing an adequate response, there is also suspicion that district authorities are attempting to cover up the facts. Wandera believes the district CID officer covered up for the matron by stating she was not in the garden at the time of the beating. Yet, villagers who witnessed Innocentâ€™s beating said she was there.Â
On a national level, The Independent sought out the Commissioner for Youth and Children Affairs at the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. When asked about Innocentâ€™s case, which he had already heard about, Commissioner Otim seemed rather indifferent to the incident. He distanced his ministry from any responsibility, stating that the decentralised system of government meant that blame should begin and end at the district level only. He pointed out that justice was running its course, since the matron was already in prison.
Commissioner Otim also underlined that under Ugandan law, every district should have a remand home, although this is not the case due to lack of resources at the district level.Â
Yet, if districts are to have their own remand homes, is it not up to central government to make sure these remand homes respect national standards and national laws? Who, if not the Ministry, should be ultimately responsible for the services offered to its people, whether at the local, district or national level?
Civil societyâ€™s response
Not everybody can raise the alarm about the horrific happenings in remand homes. Innocentâ€™s father has shown himself exceptionally motivated in bringing his sonâ€™s story into the public eye. He is an educated man, familiar with the use of the internet, and thus was able to mobilise civil society organisations through e-mails and phone calls.
Indeed, he e-mailed a number of organizations involved with protecting children, such as UNICEF and Defense for Children, but received no responses. Only Platform for Labour Action (PLA) promptly answered his cry for support.
Although Wandera was eventually successful in securing help, his search for NGO support brought to light several problems with the NGO community in Uganda.
Wandera noted that most NGOs are all concentrated in Kampala, where, he argues, standards are higher and abuses are less frequent. He maintained that â€œNaguru Remand Home [in Kampala] is a million times better than the remand homes upcountryâ€. Indeed, he posited that NGOs do not scale up to other parts of the country where they are more badly needed than in the capital. There is thus a clear and tragic imbalance between where these NGOs choose to locate themselves and where they are most needed.
Defense for Childrenâ€™s Rogers Mukongo argues that most NGOs are stationed in Kampala because â€œthe city presents to them a better opportunity to trap donors and other sources of funding, due to easy access to information, and possible donorsâ€. Yet, he claims that his organisation is now contemplating extending her network to other regions of the country, â€œas we have now learnt of the overwhelming need for our interventionâ€.
Wandera believes that he was lucky, in that he had the knowledge and perseverance needed to mobilise civil society. He contends that many people upcountry do not have the means to pursue such action, so they keep quiet and thus the abuses they have suffered are never made public.Â
The shining star in the fight for justice in this case has been PLA. Besides being the first to respond to Wanderaâ€™s email, they also organised and are now spear-heading a coalition of NGOs, including Defence for Children and the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN), who are prepared to advocate for better conditions in all remand homes in the country.
Â At its own expense, PLA took a trip up to Masindi for a fact-finding mission so as to clarify the details and circumstances of Innoncentâ€™s death. PLA is now suing police officer Abitekaniza, the owner of the land on which the boys were working, as well as the matron and several other local authorities involved in the case.
PLAâ€™s Anita Marie Kiddu, legal officer, explained that the case caught their attention because it involved child labour, a crime that PLA has a mandate to fight against. She stated: â€œwe are trying to sensitise people to stop using child labourâ€. In this specific case, she reminded us that â€œeven if they are inmates they are still childrenâ€ and thus they are still protected by laws against child labour. â€œIndeed,â€ she added, â€œwhat happened here is tantamount to forced labour, as the children were inmates and had no choice over their actionsâ€. Had the children not been working on the farm, Innocent would not have been beaten, and perhaps would still be alive today.
Kiddu hopes this case will act as a deterrent against others using children for exploitative labour and will set a precedent for future cases.â€It will be a huge step we have taken and something in place which will deter othersâ€.Â
Action is needed
For Wandera, â€œmy son died like Jesus Christ, he died on behalf of many children in remand homesâ€.Â He believes that his sonâ€™s death can be useful if it instigates a closer look at remand homes, and in particular, remand homes at the district level, and their disrespect of childrenâ€™s basic rights.
At Innocentâ€™s funeral, Wandera noted that several families came out to testify of having lost their own children at the remand home and having been told by officials that their sons had escaped. Had Innocentâ€™s first hasty burial not been spotted by passer-bys and his body not exhumed, perhaps he too would have been officially recorded as having â€œescapedâ€.
This begs the question: How many other cases like Innocentâ€™s are unknown? How many other children have been forced to work, beaten or even killed while living in an institution meant to protect them?