Last week, I had the rare opportunity of staying in Jinja town, Eastern Uganda, for four days. During that little time my attention was worked up by high incidences of abuse of children's rights especially child labour. At Masese landing site on Lake Victoria, children chose to go fishing instead of tapping into the window of free education at Primary and Secondary school levels. Some of the children were roaming sugarcane shambas (gardens) harvesting cane for as much as Shillings 4000 per day.
All this abuse is happening under the nose of local leaders and the Uganda police. Poverty and high unemployment rates are pushing people in rural Jinja and Busoga sub-region to the wall. To try and make ends meet, some residents have turned their small plots of land into sugarcane gardens to sell to big sugar factories that dot the region.
Some sugar factories are dangling the "cane loans" in the eyes of the peasants with limited land. The parents and their children have succumbed to the bait. They are now growing sugarcane with renewed vgour forgetting about growing food crops.
As a result children are missing out on school, and families are going hungry since parents are now buying food from the market. But the parents don't have sufficient money to sustain buying food from the market for a long time. Given that sugarcane takes at least 24 months to mature, food shortage is knocking at the doors of people of Busoga.
Consequently, children who are supposed to be attaining education to be able to lead a decent future are being asked by parents to offer their labour on the progressive sugarcane outgrowers' farms. The money that is paid to the children is used by their parents or guardians to put food on table and meeting the other basic needs.
The situation presents a double loss for these children. The children miss education which they need to turn around their lives. Even the money they work for as child labourers is pocketed by parents and guardians.
At Karungami Primary School in Wanyange, the headmistress only laments about the incessant pupil absenteeism due to sugarcane farms. According to the headmistress at least 40 pupils are absent from school daily.
Local leaders in the area say they have put by-laws in place to regulate sugarcane growing and child labour. But the by-laws seem to be only on paper since they are yet to be implemented. According to one local leader, the communities are advised to grow sugarcane if they have at least 5 acres of land where 2 acres have to be earmarked for food crop growing.
In September, Uganda's Vice President Edward Ssekandi was in Jinja. Mr. Ssekandi was taken aback by the rate at which people of Busoga were abandoning food crop growing for sugarcane. He warned that the area was at the verge of hunger and argued that it would be useless for his government to earn foreign exchange from sugar exports and later spent the revenue on food relief.
Clearly, this child abuse has to stop. The people have to be guided on the need to strike a balance between cash and food crop farming.