UNICEF – UN Children's Fund (Autor)
By Joyce Brandful
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo, 22 June 2006 – Marie Paule is in her first year of secondary school. At 14, children her age are usually in their second or even third year. The young teenager may be late in catching up, but she has come a long way.
The last eight years have been difficult for Marie Paule. Her life changed after her father died in a plane crash. True to local customs, the family turned to a church leader to help them reveal the person whose ill will caused the family’s misfortune. Marie Paule and her older sister were accused; her elder sister confessed under the pressure of an ‘anointing’ by a pastor who poured hot oil on her.
The girls were saved from being burnt alive when a vigilant neighbour alerted police. That night, however, they were thrown out of the uncle’s house – and that’s when their life on the streets began.
Street children in distress
An estimated 25,000 to 40,000 children live and work in the streets of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Like Marie Paule, many tell of woes that began following their separation from or loss of a parent.
Soon after being forced out, Marie Paule and her sister were violently attacked by a street gang. But somehow they lived through all the violence and abuse, and managed to get by.
The older girl resorted to prostitution while selling water on the streets but one day was hit by a car and badly injured. Unable to locate her sister after the accident, Marie Paule started begging to survive.
Later, the two sisters met up again at a drop-in refuge for street children. There they heard about the non-governmental organization Solidarity Action for Children in Distress (SACD) located in Funa, one of the neighbourhoods in Kinshasa with the highest number of street children. The girls decided to get help from the UNICEF-supported programme.
Going back to school
The SACD centre’s social workers try to reunite children with their families whenever possible. It’s a tedious process that can take anywhere from two weeks to two years.
While attempts are made to locate families, the centre organizes remedial classes for children interested in going back to school. Many take that option and try to complete primary school. Others opt to learn practical skills.
UNICEF provides basic health care and recreational materials for the children, as well as teaching and learning materials for the social workers.
Marie Paule had been out of school for more than five years before she began her remedial classes. Against the odds, with help and coaching from SACD, she was able to pass the national exams for sixth-grade students last year.
Denis, a social worker assigned to Marie Paule’s case, has not been able to locate her mother, who reportedly moved to neighbouring Angola. However, he has been able to get her a family placement – in fact, the proprietor of Marie Paule’s school is now her foster parent – and she can now pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.
“l have suffered so much,” confides Marie Paule. “l would like one day to be someone important in life.”
Protection from abuse
Denis notes that more children are being abandoned to the streets of Kinshasa each day. “It does a lot of good for the esteem of the children when they re-establish family ties,” he says.
Marie Paule’s story has a relatively happy ending, but many Congolese children who are victims of violence and abuse will not get the same chance. Each year, SACD is able to reunify only a handful of children with their families.
“One of the things about reunification which l find very discouraging is that often the family is unable to afford school fees, and the girls have to drop out of school,” adds Denis.
Another source of frustration is the country’s crumbling legal and social structure. Outside the protective walls of the SACD centre, perpetrators of violence against children appear to carry on undeterred.
UNICEF’s programmes in DRC are working with various partners to push for the finalization and adoption of a new Children’s Bill to better protect young people. Meanwhile, NGOs are sensitizing families to the dangers of leaving a child in the streets.
Sabine Dolan contributed to this story from New York.