|© UNICEF CAR/2007/ Holtz|
|The Voix du Coeur Centre offers a safe and caring environment for youths who formerly lived on the streets of Bangui, sleeping wherever they could find shelter.|
By Emily Bamford
BANGUI, Central African Republic, 10 October 2007 – Walking through Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), it is impossible to miss the large number of children weaving amongst the vendors, taxis and commuters. Dozens of children can be seen working and begging in the streets they call home.
Life on the street is tough and forces children to grow up fast. Many youths support dependents, in the form of either siblings or younger children. Food, medical care and schooling are difficult to obtain, if not impossible.
The poverty and stigma surrounding such children means many are turned away from schools and hospitals. Deprived of their right to health and education, these children face future prospects that remain bleak.
Armand, 11, is one of 60 children who currently reside at the Voix du Coeur centre for street children here.
After Armand's father abandoned the family, his mother, newly single and under intense pressure to provide for her family, became convinced her son was involved in witchcraft and turned violent towards him. Armand then moved to Bangui to live with his uncle who, sadly, also came to believe the same thing. As a result, the boy was forced onto the streets.
This is not an isolated incident in this area, where misfortunes such as the death of a family member may subsequently be blamed on children. Claims of sorcery have been used to justify beatings, abandonment and violent exorcisms.
A home for children at risk
In 1994, former government minister Beatrice Epaye decided it was time to address the growing plight of Bangui’s street children and started the Voix du Coeur Centre, which provides accommodations, regular meals, medical care, training and education to at-risk children.
The centre originally started out as home for children who were abandoned or fleeing violence at home, but over the past decade Ms. Epaye has noticed a change in the reasons why children come to the shelter.
“The main reason now is poverty. Lack of money puts an enormous stress on the family, which in many cases leads to its breakdown,” Ms. Epaye says.
How UNICEF is helping
In an effort to prevent family breakdown, UNICEF is helping vulnerable children across CAR through health and nutritional services, HIV/AIDS prevention and educational programmes. UNICEF supports the Voix du Coeur Centre by providing medical and school supplies.
Last year, Voix du Coeur assisted 2,500 of Bangui’s estimated 3,000 street children. The centre is “just a small drop in the ocean,” Ms. Epaye says. UNICEF believes however, that lots of small drops can make big waves.