Children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are suffering various forms of exploitation resulting from a complex context that is characterised by conflict, food shortage, poverty, and diseases like measles, Ebola, COVID-19, and a lack of access to social amenities like Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). The interplay between these factors has left children vulnerable to child labour, early marriage, and other forms of child abuse. World Vision notes that several cases of violations have been recorded during this time when children are forced to stay at home to save them from illness. This unfortunate situation provides an opportunity for parents or other community members to exploit children by subjecting them to the worst forms of child labour, which in turn exposes these children to daily risks.
Child protection threatened
Children are finding themselves with limited choices in a context where they cannot go to school, and are not allowed to play freely with their friends. Additionally, many families resort to having their children go out in search for paying employment.
Eureka, a 12-year-old girl, has become a Chikwange (a culinary speciality made from cassava) vendor at her community market during this time. She takes care of the sale of this commodity produced by her mother because of the perilous situation caused by the disease in their household.
There are many children whose life situation has completely changed during this time. Like Eureka, they have become contributors to their households' income in order to find food.
Divine –also 12, whose father passed away joins in the work to support her older sister: "I sell embers for my aunt. She sells embers in front of the house, whilst I sell them at the market. I leave for home at around 6pm. Life has changed at home; our food has become very difficult. Parents find money with difficulty. Usually, during school time, I don't come to sell at the market. I only do the dishes and the laundry and so on and so forth and that's it.
Sourcevie, an 11-year-old girl in a similar situation to that of Eureka and Divine explains that: "Although schools are closed, some children missing the school atmosphere often feel the urge to revise their lessons at home during lockdown. However, the different tasks they are called upon to contribute to disrupt their learning because they have to prioritise what should contribute to increased financial resources for their families. Children are in a situation where they have to contribute to family income through income-generating activities."
She adds: "Finding money has become very difficult. We can't walk around, we're always stuck at home to sell or either come to the market. During the school period I don't sell, only during the holidays. But when I sell at home I can't really concentrate because every time I read, a customer comes and I have to stop reading to sell. And very often when I start reading again, I get lost, I don't know where I stopped. And that bothers me a lot."
Between hope and desolation
Most of the children interviewed in this story would like to improve their living conditions; which should include the resumption of their education and the improvement of their families' income in order that they may be spared from the various violations of their rights. Alongside the difficulties these children are experiencing, there are dreams and hopes for a better tomorrow.
"My need is to be supported in ways that help us meet our food needs, so that that I no longer sell chikwangues. I hope one day to become a nurse when I grow up," says a hopeful Eureka.
"I hope one day to become a teacher. I had a delay in my studies because at one point my father became sick and then I dropped out of school because of not being able to meet the expenses, and no one could support me at school. My mother couldn't. All I ask is that I be helped with the means to stop selling this ember," Divine expresses.
Sourcevie implores: "I hope to become a teacher when I grow up. I pray that I can find someone to help me get out of this life of selling embers. That I can lead a normal life like any child my age. In this life, every morning I wake up and pack the bags and go to sell. It weighs much on me.”
The DRC, one of the countries with a high number of cases of violence against children and early marriages, is also affected by COVID-19. World Vision advocates for the inclusion of child protection in COVID-19 pevention and response plans across the different levels of government in the country.
"A recent Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) conducted in the DRC revealed that 22% of children between the ages of 5 and 17 sampled, are engaged in various forms of child labour. About 29% of young women married before their 18th birthday, and 40% of these cases are in rural areas," shares Anne-Marie Connor, World Vision's National Director for the DRC.
She adds in conclusion that: "More than a third (36%) of the 19,937 reported cases of sexual violence involve minors aged between 12 and 17. With COVID-19, we are hearing about an increase in cases of neglect, abuse and exposure to the worst forms of child labour such as mining in Grand Katanga, Ituri and Kasai Oriental. This can only get worse as families see their income drop and find that more of their children are getting forced to work."
Story by Patrick ABEGA, World Vision DRC Communications Manager