The Republic of Congo (ROC) is still enduring the consequences of its series of civil war since 1990, and one of the results from them is the strong presence of street children in urban areas.
The problem, which had been ignored, is now worrying decision makers, civil society groups and the public at large because of the sharp increase in the number of street children.
The presence of these children has been particularly marked in the cities of Brazzaville; Point-Noire, the second largest city and economic capital; Dolisie, Mossendjo, Nkayi in the south; as well as Owando and Ouesso in the north.
Considerable economic activity has been the main draw to these cities for urban migrants and, along with them, children. Brazzaville, being the capital, attracts the highest number.
The city's close proximity to the Pool Department, where the most intense battles were fought during the civil wars in the country's southwest; and its nearness to Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) across the river, is another. Brazzaville, with its roughly one million people, is a natural spill over destination for some of Kinshasa's 12 million inhabitants.
With a little more than 2,000 street children, Brazzaville counts some nearly 60 percent of street children in ROC, according to government statistics. Along the city's main roads, the children are easily identifiable by their unkempt and dirty appearance and by their daily activity of begging.
"Uncle, give me 100 francs to buy bread," is a frequent refrain from the youngsters turned beggars.
Most are found in the city centre neighbourhoods of Poto-Poto, Moungali and Bacongo, where they undertake petty errands and small-scale businesses to earn money. Their preferred distraction is the video-clubs which air films, even pornographic ones, each evening. However, those who opt for more "upright" undertakings swarm around the city ferry terminal on the River Congo called the Beach, where every day they help people carry luggage, especially for the physically challenged.
"It is heavy work, but it fetches me between 500 and 1,000 francs [US 0.99 and $1.98]," Cyrille Ntota, 15, a street child said.
By his account, he lost several family members, among them his mother and father, during fighting in the Pool.
Another street child, Miguel Watenda, from the neighbouring DRC, said he arrived in Brazzaville in 2001. His brother, who brought him to the city, has since died in a traffic accident.
Now an orphan, Watenda said, "For some time now, my friends are those on the streets and we often sleep where the night finds us."
For some, that can be a harrowing experience. Some street children are often victim to the miscreants who prowl the darkened city streets.
"I was raped twice in the middle of the night by two young people, whom I could not identify," Ninelle Sonda, 16, said.
Yet, she has been relatively lucky because a family has employed her as househelp.
"Here, where I live now, I eat my fill. My boss, who heads a large family, buys me clothes and gives me money as needed," she said.
CAUSES OF THE PROBLEM
Several factors explain the phenomenon of street children in the ROC, most of whom are 10 to 18 years old. A network of local NGOs concerned about the plight of street children has said ROC is one of the countries in Africa with the youngest population. Approximately 45 percent of its citizens are younger than 15 years.
"This demographic pressure is not eased by a substantial increase in the resources devoted to fundamental needs: health, nutrition, education, improving the standard of living – child protection," the Ministry of Social Affairs, Humane Action, Solidarity and the Family, acknowledged in an official document published in 2003, titled "National Strategic Cadre in Favour of Vulnerable Childhood".
In this document, the government also affirmed that because of the wars, it could not honour some of its international commitments, "in particular, the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1993".
Poverty is, incontestably, the main cause of the street children phenomenon. Indeed, Congo has descended from a medium income country in 1980 to one now that is poor and heavily in debt. Seventy percent of its citizens live below the poverty line, defined as living on less than one US dollar per day.
In the same document, the government acknowledges that poverty increased the risks of young people being abandoned, of parents relenting on their familial responsibilities, of children suffering from malnutrition and other ailments.
"One of the principal causes that gave rise to the phenomenon of street children is the destruction of the social and family fabric due to the repeated violent conflicts over the past ten years," Christian Mounzeo, president of the NGO Meeting for Peace and Human Rights, said.
"The increased poverty of parents can also push children onto the streets, in the search of greater comfort when the parents cannot pay for school stationery and fees, let alone feed and clothe them," Mounzeo added.
Growing poverty, under the strong pressure of a weakening currency, has called into question traditional family solidarity, the relations of couples and the parental authority.
"This situation is due to the failure of the civil service, the irresponsibility of public authorities who do not respond to the public concerns and do not allow anyone else to try and solve them," Mounzeo said.
"In addition, some parents throw their children out of the home, accusing them of being engaged in sorcery. Such charges, by fundamentalist Christian churches, divide families," Bill Kombolo, a Brazzaville churchgoer, told IRIN.
SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEM
To halt the street children phenomenon, specialised NGOs are now creating centres of rehabilitation and they are trying to reunite the children with their biological families.
"But we do not have, in these NGOs, specialised trainers on questions dealing with children," Joseph Bikié Likibi, coordinator of the Network of the Speakers on the Phenomenon of Street Children, said.
The reintegration of a child, he said, was a long process that required tact, which must be backed by money and training to help children open up to their new environment.
The coordinator of the Congolese chapter of the NGO Doctors of Africa, Theophilus Bantsimba, said in order to reach a lasting social rehabilitation of the children, "legal conditions must be set in motion because each child is a project of society".
He added, "The phenomenon is very complex and requires a multisectoral solution."
The government feels that placing children in institutions must, at best, be only a temporary measure to solve the problem.
"A centre that keeps the children for five years will have failed in its mission, even if its facilities are attractive and offer conditions for readjustment," Florent Niama, the director in the Ministry of Social Affairs, said.
"To ensure that a child is well cared for on returning to a family, the government insists that family incomes must be increased," Niama said.
Simultaneously, to stop the phenomenon of street children, the government will have to put in place an effective policy to protect children.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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