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Congo, Democratic Republic of the

Pounding rock and crushing potential: Child labour in DR Congo

© UNICEF DR Congo/2009/Imarinovich
In the rock quarries of DR Congo, entire families – including small children – have to work in order to survive.

By Shantha Bloemen

World Day Against Child Labour, celebrated on 12 June, this year highlights the continuing challenges to eliminating the worst forms of child labour, with a focus on exploitation of girls. Here is a related story.

KIPUSHI, Democratic Republic of Congo, 12 June 2009 – Covered in powder, Sylvian, 2, sits alongside his mother, pounding rocks with a mallet in an ore heap in  the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rocks, dust and sun: This is the only life Sylvian has known.

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Each day, he and his family come here to pound large rocks into gravel for use at construction sites. They leave home at five in the morning and finish 12 hours later, at dusk.

'If the work stops, the town stops'

For Sylvian's mother, Bichi Banza, 40, this job is all she has to help her feed her six children, and she can't do it alone – So she brings all the children to help her. If they're lucky, they will sell the newly minced gravel at the end of the day. A four-metre tall pile sells for around 30,000 francs, or roughly $6.

© UNICEF DR Congo/2009/Imarinovich
The occasional sale of a gravel pile in DR Congo's quarries can keep children fed, but it rarely is enough to pay the monthly cost of school.

None of Ms. Banza's children attend school. The story is similar for the other 500 families working on this heap.

"This is a mining town. Our parents used to work for the mining company," she explains. "Since they closed the mine, there is nothing else to do. If the work stops, the town stops."

Effects of a quiet crisis

The older children occasionally burst through the pounding drone as they slide down the rubble piles on bits of plastic sheeting – refusing, in their way, to be conquered by despair.

Around them, however, there is a quiet crisis. Although DR Congo is one of Africa's richest countries in terms of its vast mineral store, many of its people remain uneducated and poverty-stricken.

"The issue is that children work. They don't go to school because their parents don't have money for the high school fees. So they work, and it becomes a vicious circle," said UNICEF Representative in DR Congo Pierrette Vu Thi.

It is difficult to gauge the number of children working with their families in the country's many mines, or how that number might increase due to the dramatic fall in the price of minerals caused by the global financial crisis.

Social protection for child workers

Teenage boys scavenge through the rubble looking for cobalt, a copper by-product that can be more lucrative than the gravel. The occasional sale of a gravel pile can keep children fed, but it rarely is enough to pay the monthly cost of school.

According to Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have the right to be protected from economic exploitation. Through the efforts of Group One, a UNICEF-supported Belgian non-governmental organization, this is starting to happen in DR Congo.

Group One and UNICEF are working to remove children from the hazardous working conditions in the quarry and get them back to school.

"One of the things we need to do is try to take these children out of this economy," says Pierrette Vu Thi. "It means working on building social protection systems and helping these children's families by giving them the means to send the children to school."

Escaping work to go to school

Vanessa, 12, used to spend her days with her mother at the ore mines. Six years ago, her father, a welder, joined the thousands of other retrenched mine workers. At first her parents could afford to keep her in school, but two years ago she was forced to drop out; she started working full days, dawn to dusk, with a mallet in her hand.

"I saw my friends going to school and it hurt a lot," Vanessa recalled. She kept looking for ways to join them. Then in September 2008, a Group One volunteer found her. A month later, she was back with her friends in school.

Organizers of the project acknowledges that simply paying school fees is not enough to keep children in the classroom. For Vanessa, the escape from quarry work and the return to school have been accompanied by a safety net of emotional as well as financial support for her family.

UNICEF works closely with partners such as Group One to reach more children with social protection systems that can keep them in school, give them skills and help their family break the cycle of poverty that keeps so many children like Sylvian doomed to a fate of pounding rocks.




12 May 2009: UNICEF correspondent Guy Hubbard reports on the problems facing poor families in DR Congo whose children must work to help support the family.
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