Kinshasa — Hanging from the door of a mini-bus taxi as it jerks and jinks through traffic, 16-year-old Gires Manoka calls out the van's destination to potential passengers as it crosses Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
One pedestrian asks the fresh-faced teen if he shouldn't be in school instead of working.
"I was in grade seven last year," Manoka replies, "but I had no one to pay my school fees. I got no choice but to hustle; this work keeps my family alive."
There are thousands of teenagers across the Democratic Republic of Congo who, like Manoka, have to work to support themselves. Many of them have dropped out of school to sell sweets, peanuts, tissues and other small items to passersby.
Boniface Mbalu, a parent, told IPS: "The tough economic situation forces youngsters to work part time to meet their growing needs while going to school. The least fortunate leave school to earn a living."
He pointed out that education is not free in DRC, and many poor families can't afford to buy uniforms and other required items.
Dr Paul Basikila, head of the United Nations Children's Fund office in Kinshasa, said that his agency had taken steps to improve the quality of teaching and help children to go to school. "These measures would be more effective if school fees were also waived, as announced by the government," he added.
"At the start of the 2012-2013 school year," he told IPS, "UNICEF launched an awareness campaign in Kasaï-Occidental province to register 40,000 children, including 18,000 girls, in primary school. We have also worked to raise awareness among parents whose children have reached school age."
Cécile Tshiyombo, a member of the Congolese teachers' union, said that the problems facing the DRC's education system are complex. "These kids left to hustle for themselves, children who already work for a wage just like adults: they don't want to go to school any more. They're already independent at their age, which is not normal," she told IPS.
Tshiyombo thinks that many children also turn away from school because what's on offer is no longer attractive. "The diploma issued at the end of a course of study (at secondary or university level) leads nowhere. If there are graduates selling sweets or ice water to make a living, then what future will younger people see for themselves?"
Joseph Paulusi has been shining shoes since he was 11. Now 16, he told IPS: "I went to school until primary six. But after my father died, my mother couldn't afford to pay for me to stay in school, so I chose to become a shoe-shiner."
He has become the household's breadwinner. "This work lets me help my mother out. With the money I make, about 15,000 Congolese francs per day (around 16 dollars), she is able to feed the whole family."
Déogratias Nendumba, national coordinator of the government's effort, said "The Congolese government is well aware of the situation of thousands of children having abandoned school. In response, it has launched a national inquiry."
The 35,000 children who were surveyed - including more than 25,000 girls - dropped out of school in 2011-2012 for various reasons, such as poverty, war, and the exodus from rural areas, said Nendumba.
"These children have the right to be cared for by society so they can flourish as adults. It's a paradox that they have to look after their families. Those who do stay in school are often discouraged and lose their motivation when they are regularly chased out of class for non-payment of school fees," he told IPS.
According to statistics from the service for planning and education statistics, the number of students registered in school at all levels for the 2011-2012 school year rose to 3,158,193, of whom just 624,720 were girls.
"Facing a declining quality of life, we fear there will be far fewer students who finish the present school year (2012-2013)," said Mathieu Kembe, an official at the planning office.