By Cornelia Walther
GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 9 March 2011 – “I bargained hard but now I have what I want – a radio, a cooking pot and trousers for my son,” said Maryam Mampouya, 34. She was one of over 1,500 customers purchasing non-food items to meet their household needs at a voucher market held in Mutondi, eastern DR Congo, during UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake’s recent visit to the country.
|VIDEO: 4 March 2011 – UNICEF’s Ndiaga Seck reports Executive Director Anthony Lake’s visit to a voucher fair in Mutondi, eastern DR Congo, for families that were displaced by conflict and are returning home. Watch in RealPlayer|
By following the basic principle that people themselves are best placed to determine what they need, voucher markets like the one in Mutondi go a step beyond assistance to the vulnerable. By giving families a choice, the markets help to restore their dignity while stimulating the local economy.
As they would do in a typical village market, families haggle over and choose from the selection of items displayed by participating vendors. But here, all the customers are returnees who lost their belongings when fleeing from conflict, or families who host the returnees. At the fairs, they can choose from hundreds of options, ranging from mattresses to shoes to cooking utensils.
Conflict in the east has displaced 1.7 million Congolese since the end of 2008. Caught in the cycle of violence, children and women are the first to suffer. Displacement and child recruitment into armed groups are two major consequences.
|UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake (right) talks with a man holding a sheet of vouchers to buy non-food household items during a UNICEF-supported voucher fair in Tulia village, located in DR Congo's North Kivu Province.|
The abhorrent phenomenon of sexual violence is also exacerbated in the context of conflict. In 2010, UNICEF assisted more than 16,000 survivors of sexual violence and thousands of children demobilized from armed forces and groups in eastern DR Congo.
But disasters affecting children go beyond the headlines. Poverty and everyday violence have far-reaching, dire effects on the most vulnerable families. Abuse, food insecurity and lack of access to education and employment are realities for millions of Congolese families across the country.
“Our aim is to ensure a holistic answer to a complex situation;” explained UNICEF Representative in DR Congo Pierrette Vu Thi. “Voucher markets for returnees illustrate one of our guiding principles – to even out inequalities.”
Improved living conditions
By providing the vouchers to female household members, the fairs have the added value of improving women’s status in their families.
|UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake (centre) chats with a staff member from the Norwegian Refugee Council, a UNICEF partner, a water point in North Kivu Province, DR Congo, where vouchers to buy non-food items are being distributed to returning families who were displaced by conflict.|
“Before we came here, my husband and I discussed what we need,” said Maryam Mampouya. “In the past, he did what he wanted with our money, but here it’s me who takes the final decision.”
The voucher markets are part of UNICEF’s Rapid Response to Movements of Population (RRMP), a multi-partner programme that covers the basic needs of both displaced families and returnees by providing safe water, education and non-food household items. The RRMP’s objective is to improve living conditions while reducing mortality among hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children and women.
‘Resilience and strength’
Although the past decade has been turbulent for the Congolese people, several indicators in education, malaria prevention and routine immunization are showing steady improvement. Yet overall progress remains insufficient and inequitable. Children in DR Congo’s poorest households are far more likely to die from preventable causes – and far less likely to suffer from undernutrition and stunting – than children in the wealthiest households.
|© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0353/Olivier Asselin|
|UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake points as he speaks with children during a visit to Kaviseghe village in North Kivu Province, DR Congo.|
“The past years have proven that progress is possible. And since we can bring about change, we must,” said Executive Director Lake at the end of his DR Congo trip. “What struck me most about the children and women whom I have met over the past days was their resilience and strength. Some of them are survivors of sexual violence, some have fought in armed groups … but they are still looking to a better future, full of hope and courage. We have a responsibility to make this hope a reality.”