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WEST AND CENTRAL AFRICA feature story for DR Congo

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-1303/Asselin

A girl peers out of a shelter at the Mugunga Camp for people displaced by ongoing violence in Goma. UNICEF and partners support several safe spaces for children in the camp, including for girls at risk of sexual violence.

PARTNERING FOR SAFE SPACES FOR CONFLICT-AFFECTED CHILDREN

NORTH KIVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo, September 2009 - On any given weekday morning, there are some 100 children under the age of nine drawing in one of the five rooms of this child-friendly space located on the outskirts of North Kivu, the provincial capital of Goma.  But this is no ordinary centre. It is located in Mugunga II temporary camp for displaced people, and the children here often draw armed men burning homes, the stabbing or shooting of civilians, especially when they first join the centre.  This is because for three years civilians in North Kivu have been terrorized by a number of armed groups fighting for control of the area.

Art therapy sessions and other activities are offered at the child-friendly space, which is set up as a safe learning environment with recreation and psychosocial support for children in the camp.  Once participating in the programme, children usually begin to draw more normal scenarios in their morning art class. This particular centre is run by UNICEF’s NGO partner, World Vision.  It is one of 12 such centres established in areas with large numbers of displaced people. 

The project to provide a safe space and psychosocial support to traumatized children in the camps began in late 2007, when UNICEF teamed up with Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internazionale and World Vision to establish child-friendly spaces and youth centres in many of the different camps with displaced people in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.  UNICEF supports the child-friendly spaces with technical experts as well as by providing training for NGO partners on psychosocial support techniques. 

From the beginning of this joint effort, UNICEF and partners noted that adolescent girls were not participating regularly in the child-friendly space activities. This prompted a more specific investigation to examine the different needs of displaced boys and girls living in the camps.  A UNICEF gender in emergencies specialist conducted research among 65 adolescents in two of the camps with displaced people.  These are environments where children and women are often at risk for rape as neighbours are often strangers and armed groups sometimes force their way into the camps to exploit those living there.

As a result of the assessment, UNICEF and partners have been conducting special all-girl discussion groups to encourage girls’ participation and address issues that matter to them. These groups play an important role in helping girls address the threat and consequences of violence in their lives.  In one camp, soldiers had demanded sexual favours from four girls, killing one of them when she refused and kidnapping another. Traumatized by these events, the remaining two girls brought the issue to the girls’ discussion group, where the UNICEF-trained facilitator and the other girls were able to help create a place for mourning, sharing and healing.  They were also able to mobilize the group to advocate more strongly for a community protection system for girls.

In addition, together with Save the Children, UNICEF supports a counselling centre in the Mugunga II camp for children who are separated from their families. Inside sits a 16-year-old girl who is pregnant after being raped by a 26-year-old man. Her father was killed when an armed group overtook her town two years ago, and after six months in the camp, the girl’s mother died of illness, leaving her alone with four younger siblings. When she became pregnant after being raped, the man proposed to marry her and support her younger siblings. The teen agreed only because she felt she had no other options to feed herself and her siblings.

Save the Children identified her as an at-risk adolescent, and social workers then explained to the girl that she was not obliged to marry a man who raped her.  As a result, they are searching for uncles and aunts who can take in the girl and her younger siblings. She is additionally receiving psychosocial and medical care and hopes to leave the camp within months.

Between January and August 2009, over 66,000 children participated in child-friendly spaces in North Kivu.  UNICEF in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will continue to work with Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internazionale, Save the Children, World Vision and other NGO partners to ensure that displaced children have access to recreational activities, games and discussion groups that provide some level of normalcy during their time in the camps.