By Robert Walker
Rwandan authorities have come under fire for forcibly rounding up hundreds of street children in the capital, Kigali, ahead of an African leaders summit.
When heads of state arrive later this month for a summit of the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad), they are unlikely to see many of the street children who used to loiter in the city centre, begging and sometimes stealing.
Many orphans from the genocide are on the streets
Police have launched a wave of round-ups since December aimed at getting the children off the streets. Hundreds have been detained in a transit centre outside the capital.
Critics claim the forced institutionalisation of street children is an attempt to hide the problem, instead of tackling its causes.
"It's interesting that the first large wave of round-ups came before African leaders were coming to inaugurate the new president and similarly this wave of round-ups has come shortly before a large conference of Nepad delegates," said Peter Sykes, Programme Director of Save the Children in Rwanda.
But Gastone Rusiha, Vice Mayor of Kigali City Council, denies there is any link to the Nepad summit. He says action was needed to counter the growing menace posed by gangs of children.
"They create a lot of banditry on the streets. They snatch people's bags; they steal people's property; they become a nuisance to the population."
The effects of the 1994 genocide, rural poverty, and conflicts within families, have combined to drive several thousand children onto the streets of Kigali and provincial capitals.
Although sometimes a nuisance to the city's residents, the children themselves are frequently victims of abuse. Physical and sexual violence is rife.
Esperance, 11, has been on the streets since her parents were killed during the genocide. With her elder sister, Alphonsine, 16, she survived by begging. Like many girls on the street, Esperance was raped. She is now HIV positive.
Abuse is common - both on the streets and in the centre
Esperance and Alphonsine were among those caught by police in the recent round-ups. They were taken to the Gitagata transit centre outside Kigali.
"It was not a good life there, we were beaten and the food was not good," said Alphonsine.
Many of the children try to escape from the Gitagata centre, and return to the streets complaining of mistreatment.
"Children's rights are being abused, they are being rounded up and forced into an institution. There is no budget to feed, accommodate or do anything else with them," said Peter Sykes.
While the government argues that children are better off in the Gitagata centre than on the streets, child rights groups say locking them up is not the answer.
They want money to be used instead on trying to prevent children reaching the streets in the first place.
"The solution is dealing with the issue at a community level, providing support to the at risks families in the community to prevent separation," said Peter Sykes.
But even if money can be found for such an approach, the scale of rural poverty means hundreds of children like Alphonsine and Esperance will still be attracted to life in the city.
A Rwandan nun working with street children, who does not want to be named, says that for these children, alternatives to detention need to be found.
"Round-ups are not an adequate solution, we need to reach each child, find the problem that pushed them onto the street, then help the child find solutions better than the street."