By Edward Bally
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 29 March 2012 – In one of the poorest countries on earth, years of conflict have damaged the fabric that holds communities together – and children, as always, are the most affected.
|UNICEF correspondent Edward Bally reports on the 'protected communities' programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which aims to respond to children's needs by empowering their families and neighbors.|
Of the country’s 66 million people, half are under age 18. And in one way or another – through the loss of a parent, exposure to conflict, or experience with poverty, HIV/AIDS or other adversities – the majority of these children can be considered vulnerable.
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 labour. More than half the country’s children lack access to improved water sources, and 72 per cent lack access to improved sanitation, leaving them susceptible to disease. And a staggering 92 per cent of children experience some form of violent punishment during their upbringings.
To respond to these challenges, UNCEF helped create the ‘protected communities’ approach, a massive, country-wide approach to protecting children by empowering families and communities. The initiative has been running for two years.
“The community, the family has no means to take care of their own children anymore,” said UNICEF Chief of Child Protection Alessandra Dentice. “The ‘protected communities’ approach tries to reinforce the capacities of the communities to prevent children from becoming vulnerable, or from becoming more vulnerable than they already are.”
Empowering community members
UNICEF and partners, together with the government, have created a system to help communities better care for their children.
|© UNICEF VIDEO|
|UNICEF is working with communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to protect vulnerable children.|
Volunteers play a critical role in this system. Many work on the local level to respond to children’s needs. Theophile Keto Lukelo is one of these volunteers. In his village of Kimwanza, 40 km from Kinshasa, he keeps an eye on the well-being of the children.
“I go door-to-door,” Theophile explained, “to identify children that might be in danger, or those who might be in vulnerable situations.”
In 2009, Theophile met Samuel, a boy who had lost his father two years earlier, which forced him to drop out of school. Theophile referred the case to the local coordinator, and Samuel was offered the opportunity to return to school for free.
“If you don’t go into the households, you can’t really understand what’s going on. That’s why we have to come regularly,” Theophile said.
Samuel’s encounter with Theophile changed his entire family’s life. After being out of school for years, Samuel and his sisters are all back in school.
Working together for children
In Kimwenza, like in many other villages throughout the country, two social workers are in charge of choosing the best solution for vulnerable children.
“We work on the field to provide those children with concrete solutions as well as a psychological help,” said Bienvenue Nlandu, one of the Kimwanza social workers. “We then gradually mix them with the community, and the community progressively accepts those children, who are not a danger anymore.”
Hundreds of communities like Kimwanza are now benefitting from the contributions of government and non-government participants, all acting together on behalf of vulnerable children.
“Everything has to be decided around a table,” said Celestin Kabamba, provincial coordinator for the Ministry of Social Affairs, Humanitarian Actions and National Solidarity. “For instance, shall we send a child back to his family? Shall we send him to a foster family? This is not for one person to decide, or the state, but for many partners gathered around a table, for the superior interest of the child.”
Building long-term solutions
Through a referral system, provincial coordinators also offer vocational training and income-generating activities for children who are unable to attend school.
In Kimwanza, orphaned and vulnerable adolescent girls can receive training in sewing, a skill that will enable them to earn a living and improve their situations.
“UNICEF’s objective is to responsibilize the families and the government to help build long-term solutions,” Ms. Dentice said.
Two years on, the ‘protected communities’ approach is helping communities realize their potential to reach out to children in need, and to act in – as Mr. Kabamba said – the superior interest of each and every child.