At a CFS construction site, 8yo Antoinette is silent. She hasn't spoken since 27 May, when the militias and FARDC staged a confrontation in her village, and children were caught in the crossfire.

DR Congo: why child protection is key to children’s mental health

A little girl looks up as her father explains how Antoinette, 8, stopped talking. “It was the 27th May, during the day when the children were at school. The militia and military arrived and began to shoot.”  

The teachers panicked, Anto’s father explains: “They sent the children home. Each child went a different way and the first shots caused total panic. Anto hasn’t spoken since,” he continues. “She’s uncomfortable with other children, and she stays on her own. I’ve taken her to all the health centers and medical NGOs to see if they can help, but they can’t do anything.”

 World Vision’s first Child Friendly Space in the Kasais is set to open this week. It’s part of the charity’s humanitarian response that aims to reach 146,000 people. 

The situation in Kasais is perhaps the largest under-reported humanitarian crisis the world currently faces. It is estimated that 1.6 million people have fled their homes and this number continues to grow. 

 Antoinette is not the only child here who now has difficulty speaking, and the children in this village - which was the site of confrontation between militias and military at the end of May - desperately need psychosocial support to help them return to their normal childhood routines and behavior. 

Dr. Alison Schafer, World Vision’s mental health and psychosocial support technical advisor said, “When children experience terrible situations such as these, it’s common they feel distressed; they often cling closely to parents or seek care and support from others in the community.”  

“Child friendly spaces offer the chance for children to play in a safe space and spend time with other children.  This is critical to their wellbeing and recovery.  Meanwhile, our CFS facilitators can support children who are especially upset, such as by providing them with basic listening, empathy and if needed, referral to other services.” 

Communities are concerned that children may be facing lifelong deafness from having been so close to the conflict. “It’s due to the sound of the bullets,” parents tell me. ‘That’s how it starts, the deafness,’ they say. 

Jean-Baptiste, 12, is one of several children in his village in the Democratic Republic of Congo who’s fallen silent since conflict broke out in his previously peaceful province of Kasai Central.

Alphonsine, the mother of 12-year-old Jean-Baptiste, describes the family’s terror as they fled. “We saw the army and panicked, and as we ran we saw militia members too. We were caught between the two forces, it was terrifying.” Children here weren’t just caught in the crossfire, they then spent two months living in the forest. 

Jean-Baptiste’s family spent two months in hiding in the bush, surviving on fruits and nuts until the hunger became so bad they ventured out in search of a host family to take them in. “The worst thing was having nothing to eat and trying to sleep hungry,” Jean-Baptiste’s twin Suzanne tells me.

“I was very sad with everything that had happened,” she said. “I cried a lot when Jean-Baptiste stopped talking; it’s very hard not being able to communicate with him,” she adds softly.

As the Child Friendly Space opens its doors and children begin to play, socialize and receive psychosocial care and support, children like Antoinette and Jean-Baptiste can begin to come back out of themselves. 

Supporting these children is equally urgent to countering their current malnutrition, and much more difficult to solve than handing out high energy biscuits.  Dr. Alison Schafer says, “Supporting children after they’ve been through a crisis and face living in difficult circumstances is a process.  We need to take time for children to trust us and our workers and allow them to feel safe to tap into their natural resilience and coping abilities.”

World Vision is working with a local NGO, Cooperative Reveil de Kananga to open six Child Friendly Spaces, which will provide psycho-social care to 10,000 displaced children, demobilised children, and other children affected by the conflict. The first CFS is currently being constructed in Tshilumba, 11km outside of Kananga. Working with World Food Programme, families in the area were also among the 28,394 people to whom we provided urgently needed food rations in August.  You can read more about World Vision's Kasais Emergency Response here.