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Congo, Democratic Republic of the

Protection and assistance for children working in DR Congo's diamond mines

© UNICEF 2012/DRC/Walther
For the past year, 15-year-old Niak has been washing gravel as part of a diamond mining operation in Lupatapata, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

By Cornelia Walther

BAKWA TSHIMUNA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 10 April 2012 – “I loved to go to school, but when my father died I couldn’t pay the fees anymore. That’s why I came here,” said 15-year-old Niak, a front-line worker in one of Lupatapata’s many diamond exploration teams.

For the past year he has been washing gravel at the river, from dusk to dawn.

He is one of a large number of children working in and around the province’s diamond mines. Children are hired to perform a variety of tasks, from digging and washing to serving as vendors. 

Victims of exploitation

“In September 2011 we had 900 students. Now it’s March 2012 and only 767 are left. Probably this number will further decrease over the coming months,” said Constantin Kadima Kashiygia, headmaster of a public primary school in Diovo, Lupatapata territory. “The parents of most students work in the mines. Their income is unreliable and many children have to take care of themselves. Those who do not drop out work in the morning and attend school in the afternoon, but they are too exhausted to concentrate and often fall asleep at class. It doesn’t help that there is for most of them only one meal per day.”

© UNICEF 2012/DRC/Walther
A boy carries a 60 kg bag of gravel to a river in Lupatapata, Democratic Republic of the Congo. It's one of a dozen that he'll transport today, part of a diamond mining operation.

In the village of Bakwa Tshimuna, the dusty streets buzz with activity: vendors selling equipment, restaurants catering to famished miners, and diamond merchants vying for the best possible margin. The nearby mines are ‘artisanal’, meaning they are small-scale operations with no minimum wage, safety equipment or maximum hours – the market defines the rules.

While digging is a men’s and boy’s business, girls and women sell food, water and more.

“We do not have figures because nobody talks about it, but prostitution is a major problem. To survive, girls as young as 13 sell their bodies after nightfall,” says Honore Kabamba, a teacher and former Save the Children UK Coordinator in Mbuji Mayi. “From the beginning of February 2012 until the end of March we had 26 cases of sexual abuse only in Bakwa Tshimuna, all of them were girls under 16.” 

Changes underway

In provinces ‘blessed’ with mineral resources, the cycle of exploitation and poverty has been going on for decades. Still, small changes are underway.

“I am out of the mine for three years now and would never go back,” says 17-year-old Chantal Bitota. “It’s a dangerous environment. Men in mines want too much. Previously I was selling water there, now I have my own sewing shop. I will do whatever it takes to get my children in to school.”

© UNICEF 2012/DRC/Walther
Chantal Bitota, 17, sits at a sewing machine in Lupatapata, Democratic Republic of the Congo. She received the sewing machine through a UNICEF-supported training programme.

In 2007, UNICEF started to establish community-based child protection networks in mining hotspots. “In Mbuji Mayi, we are working with the provincial ministry of social affairs and the NGO Save the Children UK,” explains Diane Ntumba Bitoli, UNICEF Child Protection Officer in Mbuji Mayi. “In addition, we have over 100 community volunteers whose task is to identify the most vulnerable children, to win their trust and eventually convince them and their parents to change the mines… It is a lengthy process, but it’s bearing fruit. In the past, children as young as seven years were deployed as diggers. Now the hardest work is left to adolescents and men.”

By training local volunteers on child protection principles, communities have been empowered to protect children from abuse. Between 2010 and 2012, the programme helped enroll 2,866 children in school.  

‘Listening points’ were also established in near the mining sites, providing children working in and near the mines with counselling services and safe places to play. Six villages also have child-friendly spaces, places where children can get literacy training and psychosocial care. Adolescents over 15 years old can participate in income-generating activities, such as tailoring, mechanics and woodcrafts, and victims of abuse are referred to medical centres or the police.

 “I am grateful to be out of the mine,” said Chantal, caressing the sewing machine that was given to her at the end of her training programme. It made her a tailor and changed her life. “Too many of my friends continue to be over there.”



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