By Cornelia Walther
GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 7 March 2011 – “This vaccination will help my daughter to grown up strong and healthy,” said Aminata, a young Congolese mother. “It seems so simple and amazing.” Last week, while UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake was visiting Kinshasa, the capital of DR Congo, Aminata brought her three-year-old daughter to be vaccinated against polio at the Burumba Health Centre there.
|VIDEO: UNICEF's Ndiaga Seck reports on Executive Director Anthony Lake's visit to UNICEF-supported child health and protection programmes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Watch in RealPlayer|
|Executive Director Anthony Lake (centre) visits a woman and her newborn in the maternity ward at the UNICEDF-supported Barumbu Mother and Child Health Centre in Kinshasa, DR Congo. UNICEF Regional Director Gianfranco Rotigliano is at far left.|
During his visit, Mr. Lake witnessed the daily efforts of community health workers to deliver quality medical care in the capital, where several cases of polio have been registered since January.
“No threat could be more urgent than today’s polio resurgence,” he said. “Not only does it put lives and livelihoods at risk in the DRC, it also threatens to undo our global progress in eradicating polio. We have the ability to defeat polio, and because we can, we must.”
The polio epidemic in this country, which has seen a spike of almost 120 cases over the past 14 months – mainly affecting three provinces along the border with Angola. While polio usually affects young children, adults are also at risk in DR Congo; nine have been affected since the beginning of the year.
Accountability for perpetrators
Following meetings with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health, where Mr. Lake stressed the government’s vital role in putting an end to the crippling disease, he travelled to conflict-ridden eastern DR Congo to witness first-hand the impact of armed conflict on children and women.
|Former child soldiers attend an English language class at the UNICEF-supported CAJED transit centre in Goma, DR Congo, where former child soldiers normally remain for three months before being reunited with their families.|
In Goma, North Kivu Province, he visited HEAL Africa, a key non-governmental partner of UNICEF in the response to sexual violence. “Many of these girls and women have survived rape and abuse,” said Mr. Lake. “They have been shunned and rejected by their communities. Few, if any, have seen their attackers brought to justice. When talking to them, I was struck by their courage and resolution to look forward.”
Sexual violence and the recruitment of children into armed groups are crimes under Congolese statutes and international law, yet accountability for perpetrators is a major challenge in DR Congo.
“One day they came to our village. They killed my parents and took me to their camp. When we arrived they gave me a weapon, and from that moment I was a soldier,” said Corneille, 16. After two years with the rebel Army for the Liberation of Rwanda, he managed to escape. He is now at a Centre of Transit and Orientation managed by UNICEF partner CAJED, a reintegration programme providing psycho-social support and professional training.
Throughout eastern DR Congo, UNICEF promotes a comprehensive response to sexual violence and the situation of children demobilized from armed forces or groups. This response comprises medical care, psycho-social counselling, reintegration assistance and referrals to legal assistance for those seeking justice.
|Executive Director Anthony Lake listens to a staff member at the UNICEF-supported CAJED centre in Goma, DR Congo, a transit centre that provides former child soldiers with food, shelter, education and art activities.|
In 2010, UNICEF DR Congo assisted close to 9,000 child survivors of sexual violence and over 5,000 children who came out of armed groups and forces.
Breaking the cycle
The impact of conflict on children is far-reaching, undermining their prospects for the future. An estimated 2 million adults and children have been displaced by the fighting in DR Congo, with nearly half a million refugees seeking shelter in other countries.
“These children have lost everything, but we must not forget they have the same right to social services as children elsewhere,” noted UNICEF Representative in DR Congo Pierrette Vu Thi.
Meanwhile, though, DR Congo is caught in a cycle of conflict and poverty. One in five children dies before reaching the age of five. Almost half of all children under five suffer from stunting due to poor nutrition. Less than half the population has access to safe drinking water. Two thirds of children have no birth certificate.
“The challenges are huge, but over the last 10 years, we have begun to see significant progress,” said UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa Gianfranco Rotigliano. “UNICEF stands side by side with the government and its partners from civil society to build on this progress. Together, we can open the door towards a bright future for all children in DRC.”