From 2015 we’re expanding our work into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – which shares a border with both Uganda and Rwanda. The DRC has become synonymous with conflict and sexual violence over the last 20 years.
Life in D.R. Congo is extremely hard for many children. Half of the country’s population are under 18 and millions live on less than £1 per day. Whilst most should get at least a basic primary education, few have the luxury of completing secondary school. Many children are forced by their circumstances to work, beg and occasionally, steal – in order to feed themselves and their families.
Sexual violence is an enduring legacy of the decades of conflict and poverty. The eastern region of the country (where we’re working) is often referred to as ‘the rape capital of the world’.
Rehabilitating former child soldiers
Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army fled Uganda in 2006 and have spent much of the time since moving across the porous borders between DRC and the Central African Republic. They’re not the only rebel group that recruited and attacked Congolese children. In more recent years the M23 rebel group has captured huge swathes of territory around Goma.
There are many other informal ‘Mai-Mai’ (the name given to groups of armed militia in Congo) that fight for control of the lucrative gold and mineral mines. The Congolese army itself has also often been accused of recruiting children into its ranks and committing atrocities against the local population.
Many children recruited into rebel groups are girls. As well as soldiers, children are forcibly used as soldiers, spies, lookout, cooks and ‘wives’ for the senior commanders. Many witness horrific acts of violence and are often forced to commit them themselves. The trauma this causes to these young lives is hard to imagine, and even when they’re released or escape, many find it extremely hard to reintegrate back into the communities that they were forced to terrorise.
What we’re doing
We’re taking everything we’ve learned from working in neighbouring Uganda and replicating the most successful parts of the model in eastern Congo. This includes providing counselling to help former child soldiers, vulnerable children and victims of sexual violence to come to terms with their traumatic childhoods.
We’re also setting up vocational training for young people who missed out on a formal education. Giving them practical skills like carpentry, mechanics, embroidery and shopkeeping can enable them to stand on their own two feet and provide for themselves and their families for years to come.
Helping children caught up in the criminal justice system
Children often come ‘into contact with the law’ (i.e. are arrested, imprisoned or beaten) for committing petty crimes like begging or stealing. They’re often treated very harshly by the criminal justice system and are acutely vulnerable to exploitation and sexual abuse. They’re often detained in dirty, overcrowded adult prisons where there’s little chance of rehabilitation or getting an education.
The DRC does have child protection laws which are supposed to prevent such treatment. They’re not well understood or implemented though.
What we’re doing
We’re advocating on children’s behalf – giving them access to free legal aid and helping to divert them out of the harsh criminal justice system and into a more appropriate one instead. This will often involve non-custodial sentences – like issuing a caution or community service.