Seen and Not Heard

Uganda

Meet Celia Kaala, a trained lawyer from Uganda. She is speaking up on behalf of a group of people who will never be able to repay her.

Wherever you travel in the world, money buys you the chance to get heard.     

‘There were three ministers that were once arrested in my country, Uganda, for stealing from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria,’ remembers Celia Kaala. ‘And they got the best lawyers in the country. Then how about a child who has been caught stealing cassava to survive? Why don't we represent them?’     

This burning sense of injustice has driven Celia’s work with Justice for Children (JFC), the organisation she has formed. JFC steps into the gap and provides legal aid and assistance to some of Uganda's most vulnerable children, many of whom live on the streets.     

Celia is a trained lawyer, living and working in Kampala. She uses her knowledge and experience to bring legal assistance to these children – funding herself with her regular paid work as a lawyer.     

What shall it profit?    

The Ugandan state struggles to provide adequate legal support to children in any sort of trouble. Meanwhile the private sector is largely uninterested because there is no money to be made from serving these children.    

Celia Kaala
Celia, the voice of the ignored.

With 10,000 street children and nearly 40 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, there are plenty of vulnerable children across Uganda. She remembers the scenes she witnessed when she first returned to the country after studying Children’s Law in the UK.      

‘The conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) was at its peak and there were these children on the streets, walking miles, with just a black polythene bag to sleep on. I felt a passion for these little ones – they are innocent; circumstances had forced them to live the way they did.’      

Whether the children became caught up in crime or not, Celia realised that they desperately needed someone to speak on their behalf.    

Opening up     

Her team work largely inside remand facilities, providing counselling and emotional support as well as offering legal assistance to children and young people. They have met with hundreds of young people, often inside Kampala’s grim remand centres. Winning the children’s trust isn’t always easy, but Celia says she has this down to a fine art.     

‘There is a way I interview them; I’ll ask "My dear, what do they say you did? So sorry." Often they’ll open up and tell you everything, and I can prepare the gist of my legal case from this.'

As she talks with them, she finds the same reasons the children are in trouble cropping up again and again; ‘It could be lack of food that forces them into stealing,’ Celia explains. ‘Or parenting – they could be orphaned. And some of them are lured into doing crimes by adults.' 

'If the President of the United States was to visit Uganda today, you would never see a child on the streets. They would put them in the children’s prisons to keep them out of sight.’

Celia Kaala

Another way to help children relax and tell their story is to play cards and board games with them while they talk. ‘As they relax, they open up and they tell you more. One of them once told me, "Those phones that you've left there, before, by now they would be gone. I would have pocketed them already. But now I'm different. Even if you left ten phones, I can't steal them."'     

In addition, JFC works with schools, police, prisons and churches, equipping people in these key places to understand and promote children's rights, as well as recognising and taking action on child abuse.    

Neither seen nor heard    

They are also advocating for reform within Uganda's criminal justice system to bring deep and lasting improvements. She works closely with Uganda’s Ministry for Gender. However, as Celia explains, it’s not just about changing legislation, it’s about people’s attitudes – for many people these children are a problem to hide rather than solve.    

‘No one will wake up in the morning and remember these third or fourth class citizens in prison. People would rather have them shut away than at large. If the President of the United States was to visit Uganda today, you would never see a child on the streets. They would put them in the children’s prisons to keep them out of sight.’     

Celia’s dream is that can one day JFC will offer a positive alternative to the grim remand centre she has to visit each day.     

‘My dream is that one day we can set up a place called The Children's Centre.  A place where children can talk to each other and learn from each other. Where they can find resources to read. Where we can teach people and children how we can curb crime and offer them vocational training. And where children can go and be children. That’s my dream, and by God's grace I hope to see it become a reality.’      

Pray for this:

  • Pray that Justice For Children can continue to grow and successfully speak out on behalf of vulnerable children.
  • Lift Celia's vision for The Children's Centre to offer an alternative for the children.
  • Pray for their advocacy work, that both legislation and attitudes to children like these can change throughout society.

Celia Kaala is an Inspired Individual. The Inspired Individuals programme exists to identify, develop and connect new leaders who are aspiring to live like Jesus and whose dreams have the potential to transform some of the most needy places and people in our world.

Ben Cohen
Ben is Web Editor for Tearfund. This can sometimes feel a bit like being ‘senior hairstylist for Bigfoot’ but he does his best. He writes a bunch of stories for the website, regular emails to supporters and much more besides.