Visit Congo for even a day, and you will see that one of the dominant problems in Congolese communities is the abuse of children by those in positions of authority. Soldiers, local officials and administrators, police, and teachers, all employed by the state, are ideally people children here can trust or appeal to for help in difficult situations. However, as is often the case in Congo, the ideal is a far cry from reality.
This last Sunday, I was at a meeting of various local organizations, which I and a friend from an NGO called the Centre d’Ecadrement des Jeunes pour le Developpment Rurale (CEJEDR) had organized to announce the presence of various associations formed by children (here, they call these associations “Club d’Enfants”) which work to support children whose rights are violated by persons in positions of authority. The discussion centered around the regular violations of children’s rights experienced daily in Congo, from teachers who rape their students to soldiers who imprison children refusing to carry their munitions and act as porters for their brigades. The goal was to settle on a strategy, how we might be able to protect children from the violations, and of equal importance, how we might be able to ensure the security of children in the associations who wished to speak against an authority who had committed a crime against them.
The associations attempt to create a space for children to discuss these violations, and denounce them in a public setting in hopes of causing authorities to think twice before committing crimes against children, as the associations will share this knowledge with NGOs and trusted community members. At the head of each organization is a police officer, local administrator, NGO representative, or community member who the associations have decided is trustworthy and able to aid in their protection. All complaints of violations are relayed through this representative or “facilitator”, who then helps the children to decide how best to respond to the violation and how best to prevent such a violation from happening in the future.
In attendance was the Public Information Officer for MONUC (the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Congo), who commented to the audience that such associations could go a long way in reducing violations against children, and added that in societies in conflict, children are regularly the victims of large numbers of human rights violations at the hands of various actors in the conflict. Naturally, the audience began to ask the MONUC representative how he can claim to support children’s rights when the MONUC force in our area (the Kivus) has regularly been implicated in violations of children’s rights, such as buying and selling minerals mined by child labor and regularly visiting under-aged prostitutes (as young as 14). In my view, these questions really underscored the desperate need for a local effort among community members, as even the UN peacekeeping force is a potential perpetrator in violations of children’s rights.
The development of children’s associations has become a controversial subject in eastern Congo, as those violating the rights of children have traditionally done so in an atmosphere of impunity. The associations make public the violations, and put the violators at rick of punishment. Fear and shame regularly prevent raped girls, for example, from informing authorities and NGOs of the incident. In addition, the retribution of the perpetrators against victims who denounce them publicly is often as dangerous and mentally/physically damaging as the violation itself. Teachers will kick students who accuse them of their crimes out of school or beat them violently in front of their classmates for their “insubordination”. Soldiers will continue to add to the ever-growing number of imprisoned children. Local officials will speak badly of those issuing complaints against them, and cause them to be ostracized in their quartiers and villages.
That being said, it is not much of a surprise that the organizer of the event has, since the meeting, has been continually badgered by the local “intelligence” organ of the Congolese state called ANR (think, KGB). It appears that an empowered group of students and community members might expose violations committed by ANR as well, which are all but few and far between. Those concerned with a better informed public are regularly tracked down by ANR and offered two choices: their silence and the cessation of their organizing or a possible prison stay. Luckily, we were able to appeal to MONUC to speak with ANR and keep them from pursuing my friend, and ensure the staff of ANR that they will be watching them closely to ensure the CEJEDR representative is protected. Hopefully the children’s associations will continue to be operational, even if it is necessary to do so in a clandestine manner for safety’s sake.
The meeting was certainly a good briefing on the role local NGOs can play to protect children. All of the invitees were enthusiastic to offer their advice on the best ways to protect children who wish to help others avoid violence and exploitation, and those in attendance had a wealth of expertise on the subject manner. Just as the discussions were making progress, the meeting was dispersed quickly as we started hearing gun fire nearby and got to our homes quickly, learning that the Mai-Mai militia here had started a battle with the Congolese FARDC in the area. Ironic to think of a large group of organizers, most completely unpaid, speaking about protecting children’s rights in their community while outside the door the government (the FARDC and Mai-Mai are both, technically, part of the Congolese government) continues destroy Congolese communities and ensure that protecting their human rights will always be an up-hill battle.
Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)
Posted Feb 27th, 2009