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Congo's communities protect children left alone in war

posted 9 Jan 2012, 04:08 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 9 Jan 2012, 04:09 ]

The UN Children's agency is pushing communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo to protect children orphaned, abandoned or separated from their families by war and prevent them from being recruited into rebel groups.

MBIMBI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO  (UNICEF) - The Democratic Republic of Congo is trying to rebuild after years of war ravaged the country destroying much of its infrastructure and claiming over 5 million lives.

The 1998-2003 war also displaced another 1 million and more continue to run today escaping armed groups that continue to operate in Congo's east, despite the presence more than 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers and ongoing military operations.

Many children have been separated from their parents or guardians and the UN children's agency, UNICEF has started an initiative known as the Protected Communities Program to prevent them from getting recruited by militias. Many armed groups use minors as spies, porters and fighters.

Alessandra Dentice, is the Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF.

"The community, the family has no means anymore to take care of their own children. The program Protected Communities tries to reinforce the capacities of the communities, which already naturally exists, to avoid children from becoming vulnerable, or to prevent them from being more vulnerable than they already are," said Dentice.

Half of the country's 66 million people are below 18 years of age, and an estimated 8.2 million are said to be orphans or vulnerable children.

Children affected by war are often traumatized after seeing people they know being attacked or even they themselves being targets for attackers.

Many children are now out of school and don't have access to food, clothing and shelter.

The child protection program has enrolled volunteers who check on children in various parts of the country. Theophile Keto Lukelo, a volunteer with the protected communities program lives in Kimwanza village, about 40 kilometers from the capital, Kinshasa.

He regularly checks on 14-year-old Samuel and his siblings who live nearby.

The family lost their father in 2007. He was the main breadwinner at the time. After dropping out of school for three years the children are now back in class.

"If you don't get into the households, you can't really understand what's going on, that's why we have to come regularly. Here, the main difficulty is food, the house is not in a good state but they're protected from rain and heat. But so far, there is nothing we can do for food, even though we support them a little with food," said Lukelo.

Not too far away, about 100 children live at a home in Mont Ngafula area, where they can access food, education and shelter. The project is run by a local leaders and community members. Bienvenue Nlandu is a social worker here.

"We work on the field to provide those children with a psycho-social help, we work with the children. I hope they live the child's life they have never lived. We progressively mix them with the community, and the community will progressively accept the child who is not a danger anymore."

The project also provides access to vocational training and some beneficiaries like 17-year-old Jocelyne are using their skills to run businesses.

Jocelyn spent 10 years at a centre for children and took sewing lessons in the process. She now owns a dressmaking shop.

Jocelyn has also decided to help raise Joseph who was abandoned by his parents -- they thought he had AIDS.

Jocelyn says she wants to make a difference in his life to prevent him from going through what she experienced as a child growing up without a family.