Row Over Imprisoned Children

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By Wezi Tjaronda

WINDHOEK

The arrest of street children in the capital has become a common occurrence since the past two years even though they are supposed to be taken to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare’s facility, the After School Centre.

Last week, 16 street children found to be “squatting on public property” were arrested and taken to the Windhoek Central Police Station before being taken to a juvenile facility at Wanaheda police station.

Fourteen of the 16 street children have since been placed at the After School Centre, while the other two were put in the custody of their parents who come from Okahandja and Rehoboth.

A local daily, The Namibian last Friday published a picture of children between eight and 18 years, whom it said were locked up at the Windhoek central police station. Most of the children are boys.

Although there is a provision that children picked up from the streets should be taken to the centre, the 16 children were detained, which according to the Big Step, the social arm of the Big Issue, has become a common occurrence.

A survey conducted in 2004 indicated that Windhoek had 300 street children.

The ministry called a press conference on Monday to express disappointment on how the children were treated. Among its concerns were the publishing of the picture, which exposed some of the children’s identities.

Minister Marlene Mungunda said, “The nation was shocked to see that in an independent Namibia, children were imprisoned. These kids are in dire need of protection, shelter and basic needs as they were on the streets, begging and committing crime were arrested and put in prison (sic).”

She said the concerned children had not committed any crimes and were not charged.

But City Police spokesperson Marx Hipandwa said street children were a problem in that they robbed tourists, caused malicious damage to property, shop lifted and broke into people’s houses. He said in January and February alone, the kids committed seven crimes. Big Step’s Mathew Rukoro said most kids were not criminals but some robbed people of their belongings in a bid to survive.

He said he did not support the arrest of children especially when they were not in the wrong.

Hipandwa said although the norm is that the children are taken to the After School Centre, the street children found loitering would be arrested and screened by social workers and would be referred to the juvenile justice programme.

There is also an agreement that the police will hold the parents found to be neglecting their children.

“After the first warning, we are going to hold them for negligence,” he said, adding that the police also hold meetings with concerned parents. Mungunda said some of the children that were sick were given medical treatment.

The Swapo Party Youth League executive members made the ministry aware of the problem. Mungunda said on concerns of the identity of the children, “it is not acceptable that the children’s faces could be seen. We will not allow this to happen in an independent Namibia,” she said, adding:

“The newspaper should have known that it is against the legal framework of Namibia.”

Swapo Party Youth League acting Secretary for Information, Publicity and Mobilisation Clinton Swartbooi said the paper could be fined up to N$10 000 for putting the government in an embarrassing situation deliberately.

The After School Centre, which has the capacity to cater for 500 children usually between the ages of six and 14, offers a variety of activities including home work assistance, arts and crafts, sport, cultural activities, library facilities, music and drama, home economics and HIV/AIDS awareness. The centre has a component in which it assists parents of street children to earn an income through gardening, sewing, soap making, carpentry and baking.

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