In 2009, I unexpectedly found myself in an illegal detention center in Gikondo, an industrial neighborhood in Rwanda. I was there attempting to secure the release of imprisoned street children whose only crime was poverty, which drove them to beg on streets and some even sold their bodies in exchange for daily survival.
This unofficial prison and secret shame of Kigali was recently the focus of a report released by Human Rights Watch, which details the practice of randomly arresting the poor and disenfranchised of the city, including petty thieves, street workers, suspected political dissidents and orphaned children. It is a compelling consequence of a country's external obsession with image and progress, procured at the expense of its most vulnerable citizens.
Both male and female children are held unlawfully, alongside adult prisoners in deplorable, inhumane living conditions. Some of these children do not survive Gikondo. They are exposed to a myriad of human rights abuses. They are denied access to outside visitors or medical care. They are subjected to beatings. These vulnerable children are denied adequate food or water and are given access to an open trench serving as a toilet only twice a day.
I saw handwritten logbooks of the imprisoned children, struggling to communicate and survive, but still strong and smart enough to document the torture devices used on them by prison guards in the name of rehabilitation. During my first visit, the canopy of darkness from a sudden power outage gave way to mass screams of anguished abuse of roughly 1300 detainees (600 being children) from the interior of the courtyard.
During my second unexpected visit, I was held in a locked room under armed threat after offering to pay for the children's school fees if they were released with me. The guards were not persuaded, and my efforts were unsuccessful.
Every year, on the date of my return from that mission, the experience hauntingly resurfaces within me.
November 20 marks the 25th anniversary of Universal Children's Day, specifically the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of a Child. This UN Convention observes a worldwide fraternity and understanding between children and countries to actively promote the idea of a child's right to grow, thrive and reach their full potential, regardless of prevailing circumstance. Personally, it binds me to one of the most formative experiences of my life.
Late last year, the local government announced children will no longer be detained at Gikondo although it still operates as a detention center for other undesirables. With the end of arbitrary, morally vacant and sometimes lethal imprisonment of children is long overdue, if not entirely commendable, local authorities should commit to policies that provide true rehabilitation and tangible opportunities for the many orphaned street children of Kigali. Past abuses by police and local guards in Gikondo towards these vulnerable, and illegally, detained children should be investigated and prosecuted publicly. Further, while granting early education and economic opportunities for street children, there should also be a parallel and concurrent public campaign that addresses the stigma and discrimination towards these children in the general population.
Every child has a story that deserves to be told. Every child deserves to be validated.
While much progress has been made in human rights and international development, too many children are still not afforded the rights of their peers. By safeguarding the civil liberties of the street children of Kigali and ensuring the unjust practices at Gikondo are over, we can help foster an environment where the Declaration of the Rights of the Child are the norm, and our celebrations will be meaningful and a part of a lasting, real peace.