Francine Furaha, 13, lives in a shelter in Kibati, 5 km north of the provincal capital of Goma, DRC. Nov 7 2008. Photo: Nicholas Martin-Achard/Save the Children
Past and present armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have badly affected children. Many children live in the streets and the country has one of the highest number of child soldiers in the world.
The country continues to suffer mass unemployment due to the turbulence of the 1990s. Many families find it hard to cope and as a result infant, under-five and maternal mortality rates are extremely high. One in five children dies before its fifth birthday.1 The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world and the lack of education is chronic. Nearly half the school-age population is not in school. Child labour is common and more than a quarter of children ages 5 to 14 are working. Over 4 million children are orphaned.2
In 2000 the government estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 street children were living in Kinshasa. Contributing factors to the large number of street children are poverty, forced displacement caused by the war that has resulted in the break-up of families, the abandonment of children accused of witchcraft, and the death of parents caused by AIDS. In 1997 the number of children under age 15 who have lost one or both parents to AIDS, was estimated at 310, 000.3 These children lack adequate access to shelter, food, health care, educational or rehabilitation services and are frequently victims of sexual assaults and abuse. There are also reports that the military and police regularly harass, threaten, beat or arrest street children.4
It is likely that the DRC has the highest concentration of child soldiers in the world. Around 7 000 child soldiers are estimated to be in government forces and armed groups, including foreign armed groups.5 These children are also often the victims of violence, rape and sexual and commercial exploitation.6 UN and NGO child protection and community reintegration programmes for former child soldiers are traditionally under-resourced.7 Instead of being considered primarily as victims, these children have often been arrested, detained and tried in military courts for military offences and other crimes allegedly committed while they were associated with armed forces or groups.8
There is a growing recent phenomenon of witchcraft accusations against children, who are often subjected to violent exorcism, beaten up and starved. New fundamentalist Christian sects make money out of "investigating witches" for a fee, and then claim to have cured them for an even higher fee .9 Children are being kept as prisoners in religious buildings where they are exposed to torture and ill-treatment or even killed under the pretext of exorcism. Many of the street children accused of witchcraft are thrown out of their homes or have been forced to flee.10
Children have suffered immensely in the shadow of the armed conflicts. They have been the victims of sexual violence and other brutal forms of violence and exploitation. Armed group fighters and government soldiers are the principal perpetrators in these cases and most of them remain unpunished.11 Staggering numbers of women and girls (an estimated 200,000) are thought to have been the victims of sexual violence since 1998. Nearly 16,000 cases were recorded in 2008, of which 65 per cent involved children, mostly adolescent girls.12 There is a high level of early pregnancy rates among adolescents, and the law sets the marriage of girls at age 15 but in practice many girls get married at a lower age, and although forced marriages are prohibited by law in the DRC, child marriage is still practised.13