Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Hard Labour for Goma Street Children

Many children in this eastern town have little option but to do heavy work in order to get by.
By Nicole Tambite
Thousands of children in the town of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, are living on the streets, taking physically-demanding jobs so that they and their families can survive.

They will do anything to earn a crust. Living on the edge of society, these children often have to take on heavy work and there seems little that the provincial authorities, non-governmental organisations, NGOs, or other children’s rights defenders can do.

The fate of the children is largely the result of civil strife in the area in the wake of the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda. Goma attracted many thousands of refugees fleeing areas of conflict.

Less that 40 per cent of the displaced children who have ended up in Goma go to school, officials say. The rest take on jobs as porters or hawkers - walking dozens of kilometres a day across the city - or chukudeurs; drivers of the unusual local scooters used to carry goods.

They do this back-breaking work for hours at a time for little money.

One chukudeur, Patrick Shamamba, 15, said he was forced to end his studies and find work when his father died, “I was left alone with no means to pay my student fees ... I took any job I could find to be able to buy food and clothes for my family and myself.

“Sometimes I carry on my scooter two bags of manioc flour or four planks and I can easily earn 2,000 francs (2.20 US dollars) or more per ride. It depends on the day.”

Poverty often forces children to go out to work. “With these daily jobs, I manage to buy food and clothes for my family. I can easily make five US dollars a day. But it is not easy at all. This is exhausting,” said Moussa Mubawa, 16.

He said sometimes the children are exploited and the authorities are not interested in acting, “People talk about children’s rights, jobs that shouldn’t be given to children. Who will then support my family? The rulers don’t know us and are more preoccupied by their own interests. People do not understand about children’s protection here. We are lost. I really don’t like this work but what can I do?”

Kiza Chirimwami said he works as a carrier and garbage collector, “I’m 17. I pay the school fees of my two young brothers. I earn with difficulty [about 3 dollars] a day. For the sake of survival, I sometimes resort to cheating.

“If I remain honest I cannot earn enough, but with trickery I sometimes get interesting extras. Poverty, irresponsibility of parents, the abdication of the state threw me into this heavy work. I wouldn’t be able to do anything else as I didn’t study.”

The way that so many children grow up without reference to their parents or to moral values is of concern to the people of Goma.

The DRC has a police unit dedicated to women’s and children’s issues but in Goma it focuses more on judicial matters, arbitrating conflicts within families triggered by problems between parents and children. It does what it can to bring children and parents together but it does nothing to tackle the root causes and is certainly not interested in the heavy labour to which thousands of children are subjected.

In the local government, the departments dealing with women and families and with social services have failed to establish a programme to tackle the issue. They accept the importance of the problem but prefer to leave it to NGOs and United Nations agencies like UNICEF to deal with it.

“We have no policy or means to face it,” said one official.

Although Goma has a so-called Children’s Parliament set up by the UN in 2002 with 150 members, it is no comfort to the street children.

“It has a political configuration looking like the national assembly but it is not directly confronting the real problems endured by thousands of illiterate children of poor families. It is more a thing for rich children and we, the poor, we’re not there and it does not concern us,” Matumaini Katehero, 15, said.

Two NGOs active in Goma are dedicated to easing the plight of the children: Don Bosco, an organisation of Salesien priests and the orphanage of Maman Jeanne.

A spokesman for the Don Bosco unit dealing with street children said the organisation is very sensitive to the fate of Goma’s children and that its work represents a challenge to government officials.

“It is our responsibility to teach these young people with no jobs. The aim is their social reintegration and liberation by letting them take care of themselves in a responsible and professional way. Every child has the right to a fulfilled life and not to be burdened by heavy work and immorality ... Of course it is not easy to get a child to give up activity that has become its means of survival. You need courage and support to achieve that,” he said.

Nicole Tambite Mahungu is an IWPR trainee in Goma. This story is part of a series produced by journalists who attended IWPR Netherlands recent international journalism course in Goma.

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