Impossible to do nothing | White & Case LLP International Law Firm, Global Law Practice

Impossible to do nothing

The looming, broken-down prison is perched alone on a hill outside a city, housing 250 children. There is solitary confinement, corporal punishment, poor hygiene, rags for clothes, never enough food, little medical care or education and no interaction or love.

This is not some medieval scene, but modern-day Kampala, Uganda. And the "prison" is the Kampiringisa National Rehabilitation Center for Youth.

Witnessing the conditions at Kampiringisa, Brussels associate Charlotte van Haute described the experience as "miserable" and "heart-breaking."

Although only three of the inhabitants are there under court order, Kampiringisa is effectively a prison. Contrary to local laws and international conventions, it is being used as a catchall for children the government deems "problematic." Child offenders live alongside orphans, rounded-up street children and "stubborn" children dropped off by their parents. Their ages range from toddlers to late teens. They are generally unsupervised, with boys and girls living and sleeping alongside one another.

White & Case Brussels associate Charlotte van Haute visited Kampiringisa in June 2015 while volunteering with Foodstep Uganda, a Belgian/Dutch NGO dedicated to improving conditions for the children in the prison. Witnessing the conditions at Kampiringisa, she described the experience as "miserable" and "heart-breaking."

Like all new arrivals, the 75 children who arrived while she was there faced six weeks in a "dark room" with no furniture, minimal clothing and only recently (thanks to Foodstep) blankets. This process is designed to break their spirits so they don't escape.

Charlotte realized that "going back home without doing something was not an option." She shared her experience with colleagues in the White & Case Brussels office and within hours of receiving her email, partner Mark Powell had convened an all-hands-on-deck meeting to mobilize a working group to help.

Charlotte realized that "going back home without doing something was not an option."

A 12-person core team of both lawyers and employees leads the effort. Their strategy is multi-pronged, involving fundraising, pro bono work and advocacy. Because the European Union is one of the largest contributors of aid to Uganda, the Brussels team sent a letter to Members of the European Parliament and the Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development of the European Commission outlining the plight of the children at Kampiringisa and urging that the Ugandan government be held to the human rights obligations that go hand in hand with receiving aid.

The core team has planned a series of fundraising events over the course of several months, which potentially will be ongoing. Fun will be had for a very good cause at events including a pub quiz and a go-kart event with other law firms. Our people are also pledging donations to fund a one-year program with White & Case pro bono client SOS Children's Villages International that will place a social worker at Kampiringisa and carry out advocacy work in Uganda and in Brussels.

In addition to fundraising, the Brussels office is collecting toys, books, blankets, medical supplies and educational items the children desperately need.

Despite the excellent work and progress made by organizations such as Foodsteps, "it's going to take years to solve this," Charlotte says. "And bringing real change needs a constant presence on the ground."


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