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In Burundi, guaranteeing children's rights to protection and play

By Anne Isabelle Leclercq

UNICEF’s flagship report, ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’, launches today, 28 February, in Mexico City. One billion children live in urban areas, a number that is growing rapidly. Yet disparities within cities reveal that many lack access to schools, health care and sanitation, despite living alongside these services. This story is part of a series highlighting the needs of these children.

BUJUMBURA, Burundi, 28 February 2012 – Dozens of children are gathered on a vast green field in Maramvya, a district of Buterere in the suburbs of Bujumbura, the capital. The children, including Joseph, 7, Emelyne, 8, and Jean-Claude, 9, are indulging in a once rare activity:  play.

© UNICEF Burundi/2012/Bacigalupo
Joseph and Jean-Claude play with other children in Maramvya, Burundi.

In doing so, they are turning their backs on the brickyard where, two months ago, these young children labored seven days a week, up to 12 hours a day.

‘We used to work every single day’

“My parents did not take care of me. My mother was always drunk. We were so poor,” said Joseph, who was born in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo before his family moved to Bujumbura.  “I was in my first year at primary school when, one day, my mother told me, ‘you are going to leave school and make bricks’.”

Emelyne’s family had lived in refugee camps in Tanzania before moving to Bujumbura in search of jobs. “We used to work every single day without a break,” she said. “I used to carry 15 bricks at a time to take them up a ladder, with up to 20 round trips per day. Sometimes I was given 1,000 Burundi francs [US$0.70], sometimes nothing.”

Jean-Claude was left to fend for himself after his mother was jailed for killing his father. “I was looking at other children playing and going to school, while I had to work,” he said.

They, and many other children, were saved from the brickyard by the international organization Sport sans Frontières (SSF), a UNICEF partner.

Protecting vulnerable children

The SSF team learned of the brickyard from the Burundian Association of Volunteers for Risk Prevention and Disaster Management (ABV), a partner in the project. When the SSF workers went to the brickyards, they found children exhausted and sick.

“We met children neglected by their family, out of school, who had no idea of their rights,” said Fabrice Nsengiyumva, an SSF volunteer. Many of the children were very young. “Brickyards owners prefer very young children… it is easier to trick them on payment.”

Burundi is home to 610,000 orphans and many other vulnerable children; many of them live in urban areas, where they face violence and exploitation. Approximately 19 per cent of the country’s children between ages 5 and 14 are engaged in labour, and a survey conducted in the three main urban areas of Burundi – Bujumbura, Gitega and Ngozi – identified 3,253 children living or working on the street.

© UNICEF Burundi/2012/Bacigalupo
Joseph and Jean-Claude sit at the brickyard where they used to work in Maramvya, Burundi.

UNICEF is working with the government to protect these children.

With UNICEF support, the government has created a national protection policy for children, along with a national strategy to counter the phenomenon of children living on the streets. And to better address the specific needs of children, a new Department for Children and Family Issues was created within the Ministry of National Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender.

“In Burundi, we observe a high population mobility rate from rural to urban areas, particularly children who run away on their own or are placed [in cities] by their family to escape poverty,” said Deogratias Ndikuriyo, Director of the Children and Family Department.  “Our goal is to stabilize children and to raise awareness among parents for them to keep their children with them because we know that family environment is the best for children.”

Guaranteeing children’s rights

Children are guaranteed the right to “rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to [their] age” in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which was ratified by Burundi in 1990.

SSF aims to help children realize this right by creating opportunities for play. It also uses games to teach children, along with their parents and community, about issues including the ill effects of child labour, the importance of birth registration, the benefits of school, and how to prevent HIV/AIDS, as well as lessons about hygiene and environmental conservation. The organization aims to assist 250 children from the deprived areas of Maramvya, providing them with opportunities to play and learn valuable life skills.

And the organization also mobilized partners to help Joseph, Emelyne and Jean-Claude realize another right guaranteed by the CRC: the right to protection from economic exploitation. SSF and partners worked to get the children out of the brickyard for good, and are currently helping them obtain the birth registration documents needed enroll in school.

Since the project was initiated in December 2011, SSF, ABV, UNICEF, local authorities and community members have helped 30 children – including 12 girls – go back to school. Many others are waiting to be registered, and some have also been referred to the Buterere health centre for HIV testing and other important services.

Meanwhile, Joseph, Emelyne and Jean-Claude are taking advantage of the opportunity to be what they are – children.

“I used to be isolated in the bricks business without anybody to support me,” said Joseph. “Today, I am proud to play with other children, and I am so happy to be back to school. That is where I will build my future. I think I will have a good life.”




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