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Central African indigenous people learn their rights

© UNICEF/Central African Republic/2009/Stark-Merklein
Martine Ndobe, a young mother, has started to ask for cash in return for the honey she collects in Central African forests. In the past, she depended on whatever her Bantu trading partners were willing to give as barter.

In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – a landmark international agreement on the basic human rights of all children – UNICEF is featuring a series of stories about progress made and challenges that remain. Here is one of those stories

Lobaye Province, Central African Republic, 7 August 2009 – The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) recognizes the inalienable rights of all people. Yet for many Aka Pygmies in the Central African Republic, the notion that they and their children are holders of rights is still an entirely new concept.

Pygmy people are the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Central African forests. Because of their short stature and distinct culture, they are marginalized, exploited for cheap labour and even considered to be slaves.

"We didn’t know that we had any rights, so we have been exploited for a long time," said Somoya Gregoire, leader of an Aka roadside camp in Tomoki, south of Mbaiki in Lobaye Province.

Discrimination and exclusion
Mr. Gregoire and his fellow Aka used to work for neighbouring Bantu villagers in exchange for whatever the villagers wanted to give them – mostly old clothes, cheap liquor or cigarettes.

Like most Central African indigenous people, they were mocked or turned away when they searched treatment at a health clinic. None of their children went to school.

The country’s Constitution says all are equal, but indigenous people suffer systematic discrimination. They are paid much less than Bantus for equal work, they experience poorer health and are frequently subjected to verbal and physical violence.

Few Aka children are registered at birth, which means no basic rights such as access to health care and education. The infant mortality rate among them is more than twice the national rate. Measles is a leading cause of childhood death, and loss of forest dietary resources is resulting in high levels of malnutrition.

Rights and empowerment
To help Pygmy people realize their rights – and to strengthen their self-esteem and cultural identity – Cooperazione Internazionale (COOPI), an Italian non-governmental organization supported by UNICEF, is teaching human rights and the value of Aka culture to both pygmies and Bantu people.

The project helps to monitor and reduce discrimination and encourages the participation of Pygmies in public life. COOPI promotes schooling, immunization, health care and hygiene, birth registration and income-generating activities.

Martine Ndobe, a young mother in Moboma, a community about 35 km north of Bagandou, is happier since she learned that she can ask for money for the honey she and her husband collect.

She appreciates the freedom of choice that comes with earning cash.

"I like to buy my own clothes," says Ms. Ndobe.

None of the women in Moboma went to school, but five mothers enrolled their children once they learned about every child’s right to education. The children are attending primary school; only the two who have relatives in the city will likely be able to continue beyond that level, as there are no secondary schools nearby.

Poverty hampers progress
Mr. Gregoire says his people are receiving better treatment at health clinics, but when they get a prescription, they don’t have the money to buy the medicine.

Last year, they registered their newborns because they now understand that birth certificates are a passport to citizenship and public services. However, they didn’t pick up the registration cards because they couldn’t pay the fee.

Improvements for those who benefitted from COOPI’s programme are noticeable, but much remains to be done. The gradual destruction of the Aka’s natural habitat by logging and farming is forcing ever more of the traditionally nomadic people to settle around towns and villages.

Without land or independent means of sustaining themselves, most Aka live in extreme poverty.

At the same time, closer and more continuous contact with villagers puts them at higher risk of abuse and disease, and exacerbates the sense of inferiority and exclusion still felt by many.

Even so, Mr. Gregoire is certain the classes have changed the lives of many Aka people – primarily because they no longer work for whatever the Bantu are prepared to give them.

"If villagers want us to work [for them], they have to pay equal salary,” he says. “With the money, we are free to buy what we want. We have no masters."

By Brigitte Stark-Merklein

 

 
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