After five years of homelessness, John is an expert at making his bed: he lays a piece of cardboard on a stretch of cement, wraps a large bag around himself and attempts to sleep.

The bags he relies on for warmth – which are plastic, or the types used for rice and sugar – are collected from dustbins in Mbale, a town in eastern Uganda. If he’s lucky, a kindly market trader might donate one. It’s a small comfort for John, an orphan who has grown up on the streets.

“We eat leftovers. I don’t sleep very well – it’s not very comfortable. We live badly,” he says, before huddling together with about 30 children on a shop verandah, opposite a nightclub.

The worst part of John’s life is the punishment meted out to him and his friends by the very people whose duty it is to protect them. They are accused of being criminals and chokora (scavengers), and beaten. “They cane us, the police. Big boys cane us. They use sticks and they [punch] us,” says John, who is about 15. This usually happens at weekends, he says.

Child abuse in Uganda is a major problem. A free national child helpline, set up with support and funding from Plan International about a month ago, receives about 1,500 calls per day from children and adults, according to the call centre manager.

report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) last week, based on interviews with 132 current and former street children aged eight to 18, makes shocking reading. It found that in six Ugandan town centres, and the capital city, Kampala, police officers, the Kampala Capital City Authority and local government officials have “frequently harassed, threatened, beaten, arrested and detained” or robbed young homeless people.

Boys in Lira, in the north, told HRW they had experienced police tying their arms and legs and forcing them to lie under metal car seats; others said they had been bound to motorbikes and taken to police stations. “There’s also pepper spray,” says Martin, a street child turned social worker who had been homeless for seven years.