‘Universal Children's Day’ was established in 1954 and is celebrated every year on the 20th November to promote respect for and the rights of children. On 16 June 1991 the Organisation of African Unity established the ‘Universal day of the African Child’, which is celebrated on this date every year in remembrance of 16 June 1976 when thousands of South African students demonstrated in Soweto to demand quality education and hundreds of children were killed and injured by the apartheid regime in place at the time.
All over the African continent, there are conflicts that wreak havoc. As in all wars, those most affected are women and children. The children’s situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been a concern for a very long time. In 2017, the DRC ranked 176th out of 188 countries in the Human Development Index (HDI). Children are the most affected by this widespread underdevelopment in the DRC, as they are often orphaned, displaced or working in mines, among others.
An increasingly serious situation
In the DRC, there were 4.49 million people displaced by war in December 2017, including 2.7 million children. At that time, there were an estimated 13.1 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, including 7.9 million children. Furthermore, the human rights of Congolese children are very often violated, despite existing legislation. The Congolese Constitution prohibits forced marriages, guarantees the right to education without discrimination, the right to health, etc. Although these rights are legally protected, the current situation in the DRC means that they are often violated. The UN Security Council has documented at least "11,542 grave violations committed against children by more than 40 parties in conflict, an increase of 60 per cent compared to the previous period (2010-2013)".
The UN do not specify the type of violations committed, but the reasons for this situation are several. The most important is the precariousness of the DRC, followed by the widespread state of war and the presence of foreign armed groups, such as the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) in North Kivu, which means that armed conflicts continue to take their toll.
The situation regarding education is not much better: 28.9% of children aged 5 to 17 are not in school. Of these, 52.7% are girls. Girls and women are the most affected by wars and inter-ethnic conflicts. According to Amnesty International, the rape of girls aged 10 or younger is common in the DRC, helping to spread sexually transmitted diseases. According to UNICEF, in 2012 there were approximately 88,000 children living with HIV/AIDS.
The Congolese civil war ended in 2003. Nevertheless, some areas of the DRC, such as Katanga province or the Kasai, are still at war. According to UNICEF, as of 2018, between 5,000 and 10,000 children were serving in the militias in the Kasai. In the provinces of Tanganyika and South Kivu, an estimated 3,000 children are recruited into militias.
However, the UN Security Council has reported a decrease in the number of child soldiers: a total of 7,736 children (7,125 boys and 611 girls) are reported to have left armed groups, and the number of children recruited by armed groups nationally is estimated to have fallen from 2,085 in 2014 to 1,049 in 2017.
It is the mines where Congolese children are most often forced to work. Everywhere, work in the mines remains very hard and very dangerous even today. But in the DRC, this work is extremely dangerous, because the conditions are poor, the work lasts for long hours and children are employed to extract tungsten, tin and tantalum, all of which are essential in the manufacture of mobile phones, sputniks and music consoles but also very contaminating. Amnesty International has revealed that brands such as Renault, Microsoft, Lenovo and BMW are sourcing cobalt from the DRC, helping to perpetuate child labour.
Is there any hope on the horizon?
In 2017, the Congolese government adopted an action plan, aiming to eradicate child labour by 2025. However, the Congolese government had already presented a similar action plan in 2011 which was never implemented.
The exploitation of child labour is not a phenomenon unique to the DRC, it is widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa. While around 158 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are forced to work against their will worldwide, almost 69 million are in sub-Saharan Africa.
In recent years, though, significant progress has been made. Infant mortality at birth has fallen from 184 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 94 in 2016, a drop of 49%. However, the under-five mortality rate is rising, from 280,000 deaths in 1990 to 304,000 deaths in 2016. When a child dies, 98% of them will die before the age of five. There are several reasons for this such high rate of child mortality, despite the progress that has been made: malnutrition, lack of access to good water, infectious diseases that could be prevented with a vaccine, and the many conflicts that force children to work in mines to extract the minerals needed to run consoles, sputniks and 'smartphones', all covered by the blood of those who die in the mines.
It is not at all easy to be a child in the DRC.