Many of Congo’s children are thrown out of their parental homes and end up in the streets, begging in order to survive. This makes them easy targets for prostitution networks.
By Melanie Gouby, Goma
That is how 15-year-old Antoinette ended up in a brothel at the age of 14. “My mother accused me of stealing 100 dollars. I denied it and was thrown out. I never even saw those 100 dollars!”, she says.
In large Congolese families with 10 to 12 children, the parent-child relation is dictated by the survival of the whole family rather than the growth of the child as an individual. The frustrations of poverty and the fear of parental failure are often vented on the children.
Rejected by family
“Poverty usually leads to a reversal of roles. People can’t accept failure and accuse their own children of theft, dishonesty and even witchcraft”, remarks Christian Mushilehe, Executive secretary of AFEDE (Aide aux Femmes et Enfants pour le Développement de l’Environnement Endogène).
“We’ve recently assisted a young orphan boy. His family accused him of witchcraft and held him responsible for his father’s death. He was beaten and thrown out”, Mushilehe adds.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has enforced laws against child abuse and the exploitation of children, thus giving the justice system full power to act against such violations.
However, the implementation of these laws is difficult and the laws often don’t take the in the best interest of the children in consideration. There is no other social structures that take care of children, except a few overstretched NGO's.
“We’ve given up taking parents to court, even though the law is on our side. It was making the children even more insecure because there is no viable social alternative. We favour sensitisation instead”, explains Christian Mushilehe.
Recruited on the street
Once on the street, children try to survive by all means. They easily fall into delinquency and prostitution. Young girls, in particular, are often recruited by the “ladies” who own brothels
“I spent a few days on the street, before I was spotted and taken to a place where I had to sell my body”, recalls Antoinette. “At least I had a roof over my head. One can easily die on the street”.
In the face of the growing trend in child prostitution, the Child Protection Unit, a division of the national police force, is desperately short of resources. The issue is not among government priorities.
A second chance
“The unit often closes down brothels in Bukavu, southern Kivu. But the owners are not convicted because of their wealth and they open other brothels elsewhere. We don’t have enough resources to do our job efficiently. It’s very frustrating”, explains Captain Ursule Karumba Biralo, head of the Child Protection Unit in Uvira.
Following a police raid in 2010, Antoinette was taken in by Fondation Solidarité des Hommes, a local NGO for disadvantaged children in Bukavu. She is currently learning dressmaking and hopes to have her own shop one day. Sadly, only a handful of children like Antoinette were lucky enough to be given a second chance.