Hunger or Homosexuality? What’s the Real Threat Facing Ugandan Kids?

“I found children so hungry they were having to eat raw goat skin,” reports BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley from Uganda. It’s not easy being a kid in Uganda. Notwithstanding the significant improvements in child mortality rates or school enrollment, Hawksley’s reporting focuses on the most underprivileged of Uganda’s children to show that poverty and malnutrition are still affecting the youth. I wish this BBC video reached David Bahati, the Ugandan MP who for two years has been campaigning to “protect our children who are being recruited into [homosexuality].” According to Bahati, this “recruitment” is so rampant and destructive that it eclipses other priorities facing the nation and its children. He has been selling this outrageous canard to both domestic and international audiences without ever having offered any documentation of the existence of such recruitment. Such widely debunked myths are routinely used in homophobic campaigns in other countries. Under the “protect our children” slogan, Bahati introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2009. Consensual homosexual acts are already criminalized in Uganda, but Bahati’s “Kill the Gays” bill threatened to severely worsen persecution against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals, as well as those who defend their rights. The bill was shelved during the last session of parliament, though it continues to be the focus of national debate and more importantly, draws attention away from the actual rights abuses and difficulties that many Ugandan children (and adults) face. The BBC documentary portrays children who are forced to travel to Kampala, the capital, and beg for money due to food shortages in their home district of Karamoja. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) started an experiment in Karamoja, in which crops designed to withstand the harsh climate of the region were cultivated in order to decrease local dependency on food aid. However, the WFP has also cut off food aid to schools, removing a huge incentive for attendance and forcing many children to choose between the lesser of two evils: stay in Karamoja and risk starvation or journey to Kampala to try and scrounge up small sums of money for food. 200 children have left the primary school in Lorikitai––a small village in Karamoja––and at least 60 now beg on the streets of Kampala. In total, the UN estimates that there are over 2,000 mothers and children from Karamoja begging on Ugandan city streets. Many children come to Kampala alone and are forced to fend for themselves without parental supervision or means of protection and live off of what meager money they make each day. The situation is dire, visible, and now well publicized, thanks to the BBC. Yet, there has been no outcry from the Ugandan government, no shame, no apologies, not even a false promise made to help these poor children wasting their youth on the street corners of Kampala. The leaders of Uganda have chosen instead to spend their time and energy on a bill that, while contributing in no way to the rights and welfare of children, will serve to ensure the further marginalization of a minority group living unobtrusively within its borders. Ask a Ugandan child living alone on the streets of Kampala what he is most afraid of and I can guarantee you the answer won’t be about the “radical homosexual agenda.”

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Published on July 22, 2011

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