Monday, July 31, 2006

Suffer Little Children: Children abused in Democratic Republic of Congo electoral campaign

Children, like these in Lubumbashi, at the frontline of DRC's political rallies.

Children have been in the front-lines of political rallies in Kinshasa and other cities in the Democratic Republic of Congo that have frequently turned violent during the election campaign.

Two children where killed on 30 June, the first day of the campaign, while participating in a political protest in Matadi in Bas Congo Province. Two more were injured in Kinshasa last Tuesday while putting up political posters in the street.

On Thursday, an unknown number of children were injured when security forces opened fire on supporters of Jean Pierre Bemba, who were attacking supporters of President Joseph Kabila. They had burned down the compound of Bemba's bodyguards, killing two babies.

None of the children has any political affiliation. "I come because they paid me 500 francs [US $1.10] to take part," said Ambroise Sungu, 10, who took part in a demonstration in Kinshasa on 30 June in support of 19 presidential candidates boycotting the elections. His clothes were torn and he had swellings on his back.

"The police beat me with truncheons," he said.

The children brandish posters and T-shirts with images of whichever candidate they are supporting at the time. Sungu said he always took part in demonstrations for whichever party paid him. "Yesterday we were at the rally for President Kabila, but we left because this time they didn't give us anything," Sungu said. "Before that I was supporting [presidential candidate Oscar] Kashala."

Sungu is one of thousands of children who live on the street. The United Nations children's fund, UNICEF, is conducting a census of street children. "The preliminary results suggest there may be 20,000 in Kinshasa alone," Christina Torsein, a UNICEF protection officer, said on Saturday.

Zibigniew Orlikowski, a Roman Catholic priest who works with the Kinshasa-based NGO Ouevre de reclassement et de protection des enfants de la rue, tried to warn candidates against using street children when the campaign began in June.

"Put yourself in the place of the children," Orlikowski said. "There is a demonstration in the street and the organisers offer money. What else can the children do but follow?"

The problem is not just limited to street children. "With so much poverty, children with families also take part in the hope of getting a free T-shirt or a baseball cap or little bit of money. For them it’s a big deal," Torsein said.

The acting head of UNCEF in Kinshasa, Jorge Mejia, said politicians needed to realise that children must not be used as instruments of political propaganda. "They must not trick children with money or presents," Mejia said.

UNICEF is also trying to raise awareness among candidates and police, Torsein said. "But it's not so simple. In other countries it's not so bad that children take part in political rallies. Here when they take part they often get hurt."

UNICEF helped set up a hotline for people to call if they see children being hurt or abused but it does not seem to have made a significant difference.

"The problem can be solved with a proper government policy," Marie Madeleine Kalala, the minister for human rights in the current transitional government, said. "Unfortunately, we can't begin to deal with the problem until after the elections."

Reproduced with the kind permission of IRIN
IRIN 2006
Photo: Copyright
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies