Kalyani R Suresh
Research Intern, Jindal Centre for the Global South,
O.P. Jindal Global University, India.
The Central African country, which is the 11th largest country in the world by area, has been suffering from multiple armed conflicts, epidemics, political tensions, and displacement of the population for years now. It has now emerged as one of the world’s most frightful humanitarian crises with millions of people in dire need of humanitarian assistance. As of 2020, around 5.2 million people have been displaced within the country and 21 million people are facing food insecurity, out of which 3.4 million are children under five years of age who have been suffering from malnutrition (Democratic Republic of Congo, n.d.). The country is fraught with multiple conflicts, which are mainly taking place in eastern DRC now, with around 100 different armed groups fighting for territory control which is causing the huge displacement crisis (The humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 2019). Further, the outbreak of Ebola, COVID-19 and other diseases have made the crisis worse, with thousands of people dying.
Difficulties of a child in DRC
The ongoing humanitarian crisis has grave consequences for children in the country. Almost two decades of violence and instability have made armed conflict a common thing for children who are at times forced to be child soldiers (Prashad, 2020). Extreme conditions of poverty, sexual violence, and disease have also become a part of their daily lives.
Obstruction of Education
Access to quality education remains out of reach for many children between the age of 5 to 17 due to continuous conflict that does not allow families to send their kids to school, especially in the eastern region. Children have been suffering from a lack of education since 1994, with the start of genocide in Rwanda. The beginning of conflict in the Greater Kasai region in 2016, which later spread to other provinces such as North and South Kivu and Tanganyika, resulted in massive destruction of infrastructure and school properties, which made almost 150,000 children drop out of school (acaps, 2020). There were multiple instances of attacks on students and teachers by armed groups that have caused human casualties, which have been rising significantly since 2016. The lockdowns due to COVID-19 further obstructed education, especially in the conflict-stricken areas where the resources were limited.
The conflicts also lead to the mental and sexual abuse of children. Many young girls, specifically in the eastern region, are being kidnapped by the armed forces for sexual slavery (WorldVision, 2009). The poverty caused by war has forced many girls into prostitution to earn a living. Rape is being used by the military forces as a weapon of war to create terror and show dominance among civilians.
Recruitment of children
Congolese children are often recruited by armed groups and the Congolese army. They are forced to take part in fighting and kept in detention for a long time with poor facilities such as lack of clean water and food. They are used as spies and combatants, given weapon training, and forced to commit crimes against civilians and their own families (Prashad, 2020). In the year 2018 alone, the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children of Armed Conflict recorded 631 cases of recruitment of child soldiers and use of young children in armed conflicts. In eastern DRC, children are recruited to be soldiers from the young age of six and given the training to kill; they form 60% of the fighters in the region (Protecting Child Soldiers In The Democratic Republic Of Congo, n.d.). Many female soldiers have come forward and reported their experiences of joining the groups including the sexual exploitation they had to go through which has left them emotionally scarred.
Health: A major concern
Maintaining quality health and access to good healthcare facilities has been difficult in a country like DRC, where outbreaks of disease and conflict are highly common. One out of two children are seen suffering from malnutrition, which adversely effects brain development and weakens the immune system (Child survival, n.d.). Children who live in war affected areas are found malnourished as they have little access to food and humanitarian workers find difficulty in reaching out to them (Wambua-Soi, 2018). Almost 4.2 million children face problems of acute malnutrition, which is a silent crisis in the country (Delafortrie, 2018). In 2019, cholera, which results from unclean drinking water and bad sanitation facilities, killed around 540 people out of which half were children (Children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at risk from killer measles, cholera epidemics, 2020). In 2019-2020, the outbreak of measles, another epidemic disease, killed almost 5300 children below the age of five (Children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at risk from killer measles, cholera epidemics, 2020). Millions of malaria cases were reported in 2019, with children under the age of five getting affected severely. The Ebola outbreak in 2018 also infected 737 children in the country, and more than 500 child deaths were reported (Schnirring, 2019). Continued conflicts in the country have destroyed the healthcare system leading to the lack of availability of medicines and essential supplies. The mismanagement of the Congolese authorities in investing adequately in healthcare has also made children more vulnerable to disease due to the lack of access to vaccinations.
Displacement of children
Children who get the most affected during the conflict must move away from their homes to avoid getting into armed groups. The brutal violence in Greater Kasai region in 2017, displaced 850,000 children; this was one of the biggest crises of displacement for the children (UNICEF, 2017). The displaced families, along with their children, live in informal settlements and are exposed to bad weather conditions and poor sanitation system. The attacks leave the children abandoned at times, separated from their families and forced to spend the rest of their lives in camps. In a country where rape is used as a weapon, women who become pregnant leave their children in the streets as they fear social exclusion. Young girls who become victims to rape are also sometimes abandoned by their families, making them homeless.
Stuck in poverty, they are forced into child labour, especially mining, as they have no financial means to afford school. As of 2019, 15% of children between the age of 5 to 17 in the country are involved in child labour and are working in harsh conditions (Adihe, 2020). Children who in mining are forced to work using spades, taking shifts up to 24 hours which make them exhausted, both physically and mentally (Cascais, 2017). DRC is a country well known for cobalt and more than 70% of the cobalt mining happens here (Lawson, 2021). Majority of the children who get involved in cobalt mining have no protective equipment. They are exposed to dust carrying cobalt that can cause fatal lung disease. Inhalation of particles of cobalt can cause other kinds of respiratory problems as well, such as asthma (Masudi, n.d.).
Children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are going through the most tough times of their lives. Witnessing war and suffering has become common to them. International organisations like the UNICEF have been working zealously since 1963 to protect the rights of the children, but continued conflicts make it difficult to bring the situation under control. Young children are the future of tomorrow and exploiting them is ultimately going to have a detrimental effect on the country itself. The law enforcement institutions of the country should actively take part in guaranteeing protection children under the Law on the Protection of the Child, adopted in 2009 (WorldVision, 2009). This can, to some extent, ensure that the children are not exploited and stringent action for exploitation is taken.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.