5 May 2014

Congo-Kinshasa: Hope for Kids in Kinshasa

guest column

Despite horrific abuses perpetrated on women and children, the atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) rarely make international headlines.

Kinshasa, the DRC's capital, is always bustling, clogged by traffic jams and swarming with people. Yet in the shadows children are growing up on the streets. This country is one of the toughest places I have seen for anything resembling a happy childhood.

A civil war which is reported to have claimed more than five million lives has wreaked havoc on women and children. Even more disturbing, fewer than one in 10 who died did so in combat.

In fact, it is statistically more dangerous to be a mother or a child in the DR Congo than it is to be a soldier, according to Save the Children's State of the World's Mothers report. The biggest enemies women and children face are malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition. While all of these are preventable or treatable, they account for almost half of deaths among children under the age of five.

The DRC exemplifies many of the challenges which fragile and conflict-affected countries face. Most, like the DRC, have high mortality burdens. The country has a weak health infrastructure that leaves many without access to basic health care. Health facilities often lack properly-trained medical staff and supplies, and many do not even have electricity and water. Furthermore, attacks on health workers traumatize heath workers and force facilities to suspend activities.

Fortunately, there is some good news. Despite the many challenges, there are signs of progress in the DRC. Well-established local non-governmental organizations provide medical care and psychological support to rape victims in conflict-affected areas. In the Kivu provinces, humanitarian agencies have been supporting the national ministry of health in the provision of primary and secondary health care services, vaccinations, and family planning and maternal health programs.

Yet the needs are still much higher than the services available. Save the Children is working in Kinshasa, outside the conflict areas, to strengthen family and community networks to prevent families from being separated, which happens when they are too poor to support their kids and provide assistance to children in need.

Last year, I met Exancé, a 13 year-old boy who calls the Kinshasa streets home. Exancé had been expelled from his family when his parent's marriage failed — not an uncommon occurrence. The break-up of his family led him to a secluded courtyard by a city marketplace, where he begged for food from traders or money from passing motorists. He was hungry, withdrawn and so far removed from the life that a 13-year-old should have.

But thanks to a local merchant who volunteers for Save the Children to identify at-risk street children, he was placed in a safe place to live — a transitional center run by a local partner. Exance now had a chance to reclaim some of the sense of childhood that he lost. Best of all, the work to try to reconnect him to his parents would begin. Exancé is one of the lucky ones. His story demonstrates that safe accommodation can make all the difference.

At one residential center for young boys, Centre BanayaPoverda, I met Gabriel — a 15 year-old whose story is very much the same as Exancé's.

When his father remarried after the death of his mother, he was beaten and kicked out of the house with no other option than to join the thousands of other street children. When he found a place at BanayaPoverda, he got the opportunity to attend school.

Centers like this provide much more than shelter. Children are fed, enrolled in school and supervised, but they're also taught responsibility — they take care of the center and of each other.

Exancé and Gabriel's are the faces of hope. In hectic Kinshasa, it can be incredibly difficult to find the path back to childhood in the midst of acute poverty. Yet with resources, we can help kids be kids. We can let them know they can have a better future. Isn't that what every mom wants for Mother's Day?

Carolyn Miles is President and Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children.

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