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Congo, Democratic Republic of the

Adolescents search for normalcy through education in DR Congo

'The State of the World's Children 2011 – Adolescence: An Age of Opportunity,' UNICEF’s new flagship report, focuses on the development and rights of more than a billion children aged 10 to 19 worldwide. This series of stories, essays and multimedia features seeks to accelerate and elevate adolescents' fight against poverty, inequality and gender discrimination. Here is one of the stories.

By Vivian Siu

WALIKALE, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 4 March 2011 – Twelve-year-old Ujumbe Kiwabantu’s life was abruptly uprooted two years ago by civil conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo). She and her family have traumatic memories of armed forces repeatedly looting their home and setting others in their village on fire.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Vivian Siu reports on 12-year-old Ujumbe Kiwabantu's resilience in surviving her family's displacement and her hopes of finishing primary school in Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Watch in RealPlayer


Fleeing the violence, they came to live with distant relatives in Walikale, a remote rain forest territory in eastern North Kivu Province. At one point, 16 people were living together in their relatives’ tiny house for over a year. There are few other choices. “It’s very hard living here,” says Ujumbe. “But back home there is war, so I have to stay here.”

Child labour

DR Congo is the second poorest country in the world and also one of the most dangerous for children. Armed forces and militia groups have used them as soldiers, sexual slaves and labourers. More than 30 per cent of children between the ages of five and 14 have been subjected to child labour, and in 2009 nearly 40 per cent of women aged between 20 and 24 were married before their 18th birthday.

© UNICEF video
Ujumbe Kiwabantu, 12, prepares dinner for her family in Walikale, North Kivu Province, DR Congo. Only 27 per cent of Congolese adolescents of appropriate age attend secondary school.

Adolescents comprise approximately one-fifth of the world’s population. It is in this crucial phase of life that young people need to stay in school, especially girls from the most marginalized countries who are vulnerable to early marriage, forced labour and violence. 

Ujumbe, who loves music and singing, is fully aware that her childhood starkly differs from adolescents in other parts of the world. She recognizes that she’s not nearly as privileged and yearns for an opportunity to lead a full and productive life as an adult. “My life is different from their lives because they have means,” Ujumbe says. Going to school and searching for food for her family fill her days.

‘A better life’

Being in a classroom every day has been one of the few positive constants in Ujumbe’s life. “It’s good going to school because at school they teach us how to be and how to live outside of school,” she says. Ujumbe hopes to graduate her class but fears renewed civil conflict will interrupt her studies and force her to flee once more.

© UNICEF video
In Walikale, North Kivu Province, DR Congo, Ujumbe Kiwabantu,12, attends school as part of an education-in-emergencies programme supported by UNICEF, the Government of the Netherlands and the Italian non-governmental organization AVSI.

Nearly half of the world’s adolescents of appropriate age do not attend secondary school. In DR Congo, only 27 per cent do, and even if they enrol, many fail to leave with sufficient skills. Most, like Ujumbe, have more basic necessities to deal with on a daily basis. “I fear hunger,” she says.

Ujumbe’s says her biggest dream is to have a better life. And while it will be a challenge personally and for the rest of her generation, she remains hopeful. “I want my country to be a country of peace,” she says. “For everyone to return home, for everybody to live well.”

In order for that to happen, adolescents like Ujumbe need to be heard, nurtured and protected.



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