Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a city of more than 7 million people, is a host to about 20,000 street children, commonly known as "shegues," thus constituting an untenable and deplorable social phenomenon.
Remi Mafou, coordinator of the Network of Educators for Children and Young People on the Street (REEJER), Wednesday said this figure was established by a census conducted by his organization at the end of 2005, with the active participation of officials from the ministry for social affairs, women issues and family as well as with the support of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
According to Mafou, out of all the street children living in Kinshasa, 74.59 percent are boys with the rest being girls: orphans, who have lost both parents aged between 0 and 18 years represent 25.8 percent of this children. About 21.78 percent of these children are beggars, 5.93 percent are street vendors while 30.98 percent are engaged in minor jobs.
Mafou said the children can be grouped under six categories, notably, abandoned children, orphans who have lost one or both parents, children commonly known as wizards, displaced or non- accompanied children, young street adults and street children who are off springs of the young street adults.
Speaking on the causes which push the children into the streets, Jean-Pierre Godding, coordinator of programs at the NGO known as Ndako ya Biso, said the economic crisis which has been experienced in the DRC for the last 30 years is the root cause of this phenomenon.
According to Godding, many children left their homes in search of food and never returned; many have equally fallen victim to the suffering of their parents who accuse them of being evil, branding them wizards and throwing them into the streets. A good number also fled their homes due to mistreatment from stepmothers and stepfathers.
Poor living conditions especially with regard to families affected by unemployment, mediocre earnings, the end of state- sponsored education, the war and AIDS, has pushed the majority of these children into the streets.
"We were no longer eating well in the house. I was forced to go to school on an empty stomach. This forced me to venture into the central market in Kinshasa where I help vendors with the transportation of their produce from the depot to the market and vice-versa. At the end of the day, I earn between 1,000 and 1,500 Congolese francs (about 2 to 3 U.S. dollars), which enables me to buy clothing and food," Willy, a 13-year-old boy said.
Life on the street is both difficult and dangerous. Many of the children say it is not easy to live on the streets. One has to be prepared to lead this life.
Indeed, in an environment where violence is ever present, these young people have managed to survive. In small groups of between 5 to 12 people, they spend their days next to small restaurants located along major highways, offices, the central market and all other small markets in the capital.
In exchange, for doing minor housework such as washing dishes and clothing, they are remunerated often in kindness, with a meal, for example. Others are street vendors of stolen items, shoe shiners, car park guards as well as loaders at bus stops. Actually, some of them are potential thieves. Among them, there are also beggars.
These children, who do not have any family or shelter, sleep by the floor on street pavements, in old abandoned vehicles or under market stalls, risking not only being attacked or robbed but also catching diseases.
Paulin, 13, says he was 9 when he ventured into the streets. Carrying scars from mistreatment visited on him by his mother-in- law, due to the disappearance of a saucepan, Paulin said that one of the first things he learnt on the streets was how to deal with violence. "The bigger kids abuse us and they confiscate our money, clothing, food and then force us into giving in to their sexual advances," Paulin said.
The phenomenon of street children has taken worrying dimensions threatening the state of law and order in Kinshasa. Indeed, these children do not hesitate to commit acts of violence in order to survive. They organize themselves in bands and engage in crimes such as snatching and gang-raping, sometimes under the disinterested eyes of the police force.
The involvement of these children in some violences, like in confrontations between the bodyguards of DRC's former vice- president Jean-Pierre Bemba and DRC's regular forces in March 2007, demonstrate how these children can be used to commit crimes. The fight against this phenomenon requires the involvement of the DRC's society as a whole.
According to Mafou, it will take time to resolve this social scar as it is not only a matter of removing these children from the streets, but also changing their mentalities, changing how the society views them, giving families the means for raising them with dignity.
However, the improvement of this situation will not be brought about solely by the activities of the local nongovernmental organizations, even with the backing of international donors. The matter should be handled in close collaboration with the children on the streets currently, simultaneously with the families from where the children are coming from in order to cut the supply, Mafou said.