Arrest of 13 Minors Exposes Weakness in Gulu Childcare Policies

13 teenagers and children, accused by the police of being habitual offenders, have been arrested in Gulu.

John Peter Ematu, the Gulu District Police Commander, says the children were arrested for breaking into shops in Owino Market in Gulu town on Monday night. He says they stole merchandise in the millions of shillings.

The group allegedly confessed to cutting the aluminum roofs of the shops in order to gain entrance to them.

Ematu says he is overwhelmed by the number of juvenile offenders in the town.

Jafari Lawoko, an officer of the Child and Family Protection Unit at Gulu Police Station, says the children are regular offenders. He says the police have attempted to counsel them, but they fall back to bad habits when they are released.

Three of the children arrested are facing charges of defilement. The three, all boys between 15 and 17 years, will be transferred to a remand home until their cases are heard by court.

The problem of rising numbers of street children is one Gulu authorities are attempting to grapple with. However there are disagreements on how the matter should be handled particularly because most of the children were orphaned by the Lord's Resistance Army war.

Two years ago, the LC5 chairman of Gulu Norbert Mao wrote a letter to the district probation office ordering the demolition of centers that were used to house night commuters during the war. He said that if they were not closed, they should be turned into childcare units.

The Gulu Resident District Commissioner Walter Ochora has also recommended a tough stance to deal with the street children. He ordered the police, in 2008, to arrest and remand all street children.

However children's advocates say this is an unnecessarily harsh proposition. They want families to be empowered economically to take in orphaned children. They also condemn the blanket criminalization of street children and call for government programs that will enable them access education, housing and medicare.