Congo, Democratic Republic of the

In DR Congo, UNICEF supports efforts to help child labourers return to school

By Cornelia Walther

KIPUSHI, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 13 June 2012 – Sweat is running from 16-year-old Bitshilwalwa Bukula’s forehead as she tries to smash a rock into smaller pieces. A small plastic canopy offers some protection from the harsh midday sun, but the work is hard.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Suzanne Beukes reports on efforts to break the cycle of child labor in the mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Watch in RealPlayer

 

Bitshilwalwa was forced to leave school two years ago because her parents were unable to afford the school fees. Together with her two sisters and her mother, she comes every day to the artisanal mine of Kipushi to break rocks, which are then sold as building materials.

Every day she does the same work, from morning to evening, from Monday to Sunday. For today’s work, she will earn a meagre 3,000 francs, the equivalent of US$3.30. It is enough to buy rice and vegetables for her family.

“I can see my friends going to school and it hurts me,” she said. “I want to leave this work and return to school.”

A way out from a life in the mines

Away from the mines, 19-year-old Sarah Mapoye puts the finishing touches to a shirt she is making for a young girl. “My client will pay me 3,500 francs for this shirt,” she said proudly.

Sarah is a tailor. Until four years ago, she was working in the mines of Kipushi, breaking rocks like Bitshilwalwa. “The people of Group One met me in the mine. They are the ones who taught me how to sew to make a better living,” Sarah said.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF DRC/2012/Walther
A social worker from the NGO Group One, a UNICEF partner, speaks to a boy working at a mine in Kipushi, DR Congo.

The nongovernmental organization Group One, which is supported by UNICEF, aims to get children out of the mines. While the younger ones are integrated into primary school, adolescents above 16 years are provided with professional skills such as sewing, carpentry or mechanics that will allow them to earn an alternative income. Group One Project Manager Fifi Mweze explained, “Our objective is to offer them a sustainable alternative. These children and their families know that it is not good for them to be in the mines, but they have no choice. Income-generating kits complement the package that forms the point of departure for a new life.”

Progress being made

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is home to both tremendous wealth and staggering poverty. Katanga province, a territory the size of France, is home to some of the richest deposits of copper and cobalt in the world but also has the highest number of primary school age children in the DRC who have never had access to education.

According to the 2010 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, supported by UNICEF and partners, approximately 25 per cent of children do not attend primary school, and 42 per cent of children between ages 5 to 14 are engaged in some kind of labour. But progress is being made: the country has adopted policies that promote free primary school education and forbid the use of children for dangerous work. The Governor of Katanga, Moïse Katumbi Chapwe said, “Today, there are fewer children in the mines than a decade ago. Parents know that taking them there is illegal.”

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF DRC/2012/Walther
Sarah Mapoye, 19, makes clothing for a living in Kipushi, DR Congo. The NGO Group One, a UNICEF partner, helped her leave the mines.

Still, child labour remains common across the country, in particular in the mining areas. In fact, the number of children working in the mines in southern Katanga is today estimated at 40,000, about one third of the total number of workers. As Maxime Germain, Child Protection Specialist with UNICEF DRC’s Southern Zonal Office, explained, “Children working in the mines are at risk of multiple physical and psychological violations and of abuse. While health issues and lack of education are of paramount importance, there is also a need for the children to be children.”

Respecting the rights of children

Even though primary schooling is officially free, students still have to pay additional fees to contribute to the basic functioning of the school and to complement the small contributions a school might receive from the government for teacher wages. These can represent significant burdens on families, contributing to child labour.

To create an environment where the rights of children to education, safe water, food, protection and health care are respected, many partners must work together.

“UNICEF is supporting the government to establish a countrywide social protection system for children, through what we call ‘protecting communities’, an approach that aims to strengthen the capacities of communities to take care of their children,” stressed Mr. Germain. Beyond the government and individual communities, UNICEF and its partners, including the World Bank and USAID, are advocating to involve the private sector in social change in the mining areas.


 

 

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