Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Battlestar Gomactica

After the field trip yesterday, we were all exhausted and so had a slow next morning. The rest of the trip will be spent in Goma, exploring the situation and War Child’s work here. So we went to the office to meet Mike’s team and to see their presentations on the work they do. That’s a prelude to the afternoon, when we go to visit some of the projects of Don Bosco, one of our major partners here, where they deliver services to children supported by War Child.

It seems a good idea now to tell you, dear reader, a bit about War Child, should you wish to know more. This next section is therefore a bit of a – aah - commercial, so skip it and go to the middle of today’s entry if you wish!

As the name says, War Child works with children marginalised by conflict. They could be child soldiers, ex-child soldiers, children orphaned by war, children and families who have been displaced or affected by conflict. Our vision is a world in which the lives of children are no longer torn apart by war. As a smaller charity, we do a lot of work ourselves and partner with others to deliver services but, even more, we have to influence bigger charities and other important institutions and organisations to give priority to these children. A second point is that we cannot possibly provide everything for these children, nor can we work with every child impacted by war. So we concentrate on improving what Mighty Warrior calls the “protective environment” for children who live with a combination of insecurity, poverty and exclusion; and we concentrate on the most vulnerable.

What we’re talking about here is a differential calculus, if you like, of deprivation. All children have needs, of course. More vulnerable children have more needs – for example, if disabled. Street children are even more excluded and vulnerable, and conflict-affected street children will be the most vulnerable and worst affected of all.

Into that calculus War Child injects hope. We do their work through education, protection, and providing sustainable livelihoods. Hence in Masisi concentrating on child protection, but also paying attention to the lack of schooling and the terrible situation of those in the camps. Uniquely, we help support community leaders in coping with child protection issues, and this is at the heart of the work in Masisi. We want to build up community, civil society and local government so that they support recovery and reintegration of girls associated with war or armed forces.

For example, War Child has established 20 child protection committees in Goma to protect children with 409 members (130 men/279 women) to build a network, which needs to be strengthened to make it more active. We also concentrate on making the links with community leaders, building awareness, engagement, action, and responsibility. Every year the Goma authorities round up children in the street in a ‘clean-up’ exercise, usually around the holiday periods when more people are out shopping. The children can end up in custody, are usually beaten and, in recent case, drowned. This would not happen if community links were in place and referral networks were working well.

Alongside this long-term effort, we work directly with children through our partner, Don Bosco. These are children in the street, but not necessarily street children. The problems that they have to deal with are amazing. 80% of girls do not go to primary school, sometimes because of sexual violence. Even when in school, they are not safe; war zones commonly feature children preyed on by teachers, for example. Otherwise, they will be prey to the usual dangers and threats, including people in authority taking advantage of them, then telling them to keep quiet even though they have been raped or attacked. For that reason, children in the streets who have no schooling are even more vulnerable and can be more easily preyed upon as they may find it difficult to communicate and to respond to rehabilitation.

Of course, the story is not all bad. There is a Children’s Parliament in Goma which is trying to promote involvement in political life and which has links into the local schools. And there are quite a few NGOs working here with children, addressing a portion of the need that exists, but it is certainly better than nothing. There are also the UN-registered agencies, MONUSCO and UNHCR and UNICEF, a couple of which we will be meeting on this trip. But the enormity of the problems is staggering.

In This Place

For those who know something about the history of this part of the world, the ill treatment of the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable will be old news. Which makes it even more despicable.

The Congo was discovered by Portuguese in the 15th century and, through a series of manoeuvres, became a personal fiefdom of King Leopold of Belgium, who turned it into a slave state, subjugating the natives for economic gain. Ivory and rubber were extracted at the end of a gun or whip all through the land; infrastructure was built using forced labour; along the way, the colonisers laid waste to both land and people. These were eventually exposed and Leopold was forced to surrender the colony to the Belgian state, who ruled it until independence in 1960. The story of Leopold has been told very well in King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, and the horrors it relates sound not a million miles away from the situation in the Congo today.

Some 10m people were estimated to have died in the exploitation of the colony. Children hardly escaped, and not just because their parents were executed for not achieving the hated quotas for rubber production. “Even children were put to work: one observer noted seven- to nine-year-olds each carrying a load of twenty-two pounds,” says Hochschild. He also tells a story from the memoirs of a Belgian magistrate, Stanislas Lefranc, who heard a number of children screaming and,

On tracing the howls to their source, Lefranc found ‘some 30 urchins, of whom several were 7 or 8 years old, lined up and waiting their turn, watching, terrified, their companions being flogged. Most of the urchins, in a paroxysm of grief…kicked so frightfully that the soldiers order to hold them by the hands and feet had to lift them off the ground…25 times the whip slashed down on each of the children.’ The evening before, Lefranc learned, several children had laughed in the presence of a white man, who then ordered that all the servant boys in town be given 50 lashes. The second instalment of 25 lashes was due at 6 o’clock the next morning. Lefranc managed to get these stopped, but was told not to make any more protests that interfered with discipline.

In 1890, Leopold proposed building 3 specialist children’s colonies, not with benevolent motives, but to breed soldiers. These took in orphans, which were in most cases not literally orphaned but absent any parents as they had been killed in the pursuit of rubber, according to Hochschild, who says that the colonies: “..were usually ruled by the chicotte [the gigantic whip made of rhinoceros hide] and the chain. There were many mutinies. If they survived their kidnapping, transport, and schooling, most of the male graduates of the state colonies became soldiers, just as Leopold had ordered. These state colonies were the only state-funded schools for Africans in Leopold’s Congo. Among the traumatised and malnourished children…disease was rife and the death rate high, often over 50%. Thousands more children perished during the long journeys to get there…”

Exploiting and destroying children in the name of war in this place is thus hardly a new phenomenon. And not much seems to have improved in a century: more than 2.7m children under 5 have died as a result of the effects of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998 and, even though there was a peace deal in 2003, there are still 1.7m people displaced. More than 250,000 people, including children and men, have been raped in the provinces of North and South Kivu alone since 1998. 35,000 children have been recruited into armed groups of which 40% are girls – and recruitment continues. War Child could work solely in the DRC and have its hands full.

Don Bosco

We had lunch in the office with the team and then got ready for our visit that day to Don Bosco. Our objectives are the recovery and reintegration of 800 conflict-affected or conflict-associated girls in 3 years, and we’ve already made a start with 262 having been registered there so far. Reintegration of children affected by conflict is never easy, partly because of the repercussions of re-entry into the family, and can made worse by the problems that may follow, such as exploitation, prostitution, etc. We work mainly with girls because they never get as much priority as boys. About ½ of them were victims of sexual violence; about ¼ were girl mothers and we are now looking after their babies as well; 23% were street girls; a small but significant number were accused of being child witches and so were probably expelled by their families (some of the above categories will overlap, by the way). The girls range from 12 – 17. We set off for the first project, Maison Marguerite, which mainly has girl mothers in it.

At the project, we met Ernest, our Don Bosco tour guide for the next few days, and Carola. We were also greeted by the inhabitants with a cheery song as we entered the gate and saw the brightly painted houses in which the girls live.

The lowdown was given to us by Ernest, who dealt with occasional questions to the girls by getting French translations of our questions in English and turning those into Swahili, a pattern that repeated itself over next few days. It could be a long process getting an answer, but there was no other way!

Maison Marguerite support 4 types of girls: girl mothers, ex-child soldiers, girls accused of child sorcery, and girls at risk in their family. Although you can work and live at Maison Marguerite, some left to return to their family where this was possible and attended school or vocational training daily.

There is no set time for girls to stay at the project, but a rough guide of 2 years with 1 year of vocational training is about right. The vocational training consists of 6 months of theory and 3 of practice. After the initial training, girls will come back for their intermediate stage. This will include things such as dealing with clients, which helps with socialisation and with confidence, and also means that they obtain a certificate from the government (DIVAS), so are able to get work. In the case of sewing, for example, a tailor will evaluate the girls and may even invite them to stay.

Babies will in general follow their mother from when born to about 2 years old. The youngest mother in Maison Marguerite is 13 – and we were fortunate enough to meet her. The houses they live in are split into 2, with girl mothers a constant, and a mixture of others in the other half. The have 16 girl mothers with their babies at present. It’s rare that a girl mother comes to Maison Marguerite alone – War Child and other NGOs will usually refer. Wanda took immediately to a little newborn that is about 10 days old!!!

The girls get training on how to manage a household, on caring for their baby, on hygiene, on their own hygiene – the idea being to empower a girl as a person, as a mother, and as a future family head. When a vocation is taught, follow-up takes place afterwards to make sure that income is generated. A Galerie Marguerite is planned in due course, a co-operative that will sell the products generated.

The main issue for girls is health, resulting from sexual violence, malnutrition, malaria and other diseases.

We asked the girls what their ultimate goals were. One answer, translated between E/F/S: “I just want to have a normal life. I hope at the end of this stage and end of the vocational training that I can have my own atelier, perhaps with other girls I know doing the same training, or get a good job and have a normal life in the community.” Of course, if reunited with her family, there will be no way that she can get the support to start her own shop. Another commented that, “I know that the training at this stage will be helpful, but the main concern is always financial problems.” Don Bosco does give girls at this stage a start-up kit, and Galleries Marguerite is intended to help girls over the transition to an independent life.

To see what happens to the girls, we went to a next stage tailor’s shop where Maison Marguerite girls work, which was a great experience.

We have planned for tomorrow yet more visits to businesses, this time in the microcredit programme part funded by War Child.

Thanks to everyone in the War Child offices in London and Goma for statistics and facts used above.

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