|© UNICEF 2007/CAR/Holtz|
|The Voix du Coeur Centre provides a safe haven for many of Bangui's orphans and vulnerable children.|
By Emily Bamford
BANGUI, Central African Republic, 21 February 2008 – Louis, 5, is giggling as he sings along to the music at the Voix de Coeur Centre, which provides a home to some of the most vulnerable children in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Because Louis was disorientated and fearful, it took him many days before he was able to communicate with the other boys at the centre. Beatrice Epaye, the head and founder of Voix de Coeur, laughs as she describes just how much Louis has changed since he arrived in October.
“Every day we see an improvement,” says Ms. Epaye.
Orphaned and vulnerable
Louis has already suffered from years of abuse. After he was beaten by his father, concerned neighbours referred the boy to the local authorities. He subsequently lived with the deputy mayor of his town for several weeks.
Following a party, the daughter of the host family became ill with food poisoning. It was then that people began to spread rumours that Louis was a witch, a common superstitious allegation.
Unwanted by the family that had taken him in, the boy was transferred to a prison in Bangui. He remained there until UNICEF was able to negotiate his release and refer him to Voix Du Coeur.
A place for healing
Under the watchful eye of Ms. Epaye, Louis has received specialized psychosocial and medical treatment. It will take months, or perhaps years, before Louis recovers. For the moment, he seems content, but he still bears the scars from his ordeal – most noticeably a large gash on his forehead.
“We are just taking it day by day. We are not sure how he will be affected in the long run,” Ms. Epaye admits.
Louis and 60 other children receive full-time care at the centre. However, these children represent just the tip of a very deep iceberg. Approximately 3,000 children currently reside on the streets of Bangui, and many of them have suffered from some form of domestic abuse.
Protection from abuse
As part of an ongoing effort to ensure that children such as Louis are protected from abuse, UNICEF works extensively with orphans and vulnerable children across the country, including those affected by conflict.
UNICEF actively supports the Voix de Coeur project with school supplies and medical and recreational equipment. In addition, the World Food Programme ensures that the children at the centre receive three meals per day.
Ending conflict and poverty, which have undermined CAR’s community structure, will be vital in ensuring that children such as Louis grow up in a protective environment. In the meantime, places like the Voix de Coeur Centre offer these children a safe haven.