Kampala (AFP) - Street children in Uganda suffer from systematic abuse by the country's police and other officials, including beatings and sex attacks, Human Rights Watch said in a report Thursday.
Human Rights Watch said it had documented how police and officials threaten street children at night, and beat them with batons, whips, or wires to extort bribes or as a punishment for vagrancy.
Homeless children are also at risk of beatings and forced drug use from older homeless children or adults, and both boys and girls living on the street reported being raped or sexually assaulted by men and older street boys, the report said.
"Ugandan authorities should be protecting and helping homeless children, not beating them up or throwing them in police jails with adults," said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"The government should end arbitrary round-ups of street children and protect them from abuse. Instead of being able to turn to the police or local government officials for help when they've been abused, children find themselves living in fear of the authorities meant to protect them."
Over half of all Ugandans are under 15, and children are the single largest demographic group living in poverty, the report said, adding that the number of Ugandan children living on the streets was increasing -- though the total number is not known.
Many are homeless because their parents have died from AIDS, while others have been displaced by the war against rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in the north.
Human Rights Watch said it interviewed 130 current and former street children throughout the impoverished east African nation, along with members of organisations providing assistance to street children, health care workers, international humanitarian and children's organisations, police, and local government officials.
"There is a tradition... that the police use as a way of punishment in threes: the first beating is to open your eyes, the second is to show you the way home, the third is to send you home. They say this to you (as they beat you)," one 15-year-old boy who has spent 10 years on the streets was quoted as saying.
"They kept us in rooms where we were caned from the back to the buttocks. On the third day they opened the gate and we were caned as we left."
Human Rights Watch called on the Ugandan government to end round-ups and abuses, and investigate and prosecute those responsible for abuse.
"For children to be effectively protected and cared for, the government should ensure that all children, including those on the streets, can find shelter and get an education," Burnett said.
"They should be treated with dignity and have the opportunity to find a safe way off the streets."