Congo's Children Vulnerable to Sexual Exploitation

18/5/2011 - Congo's women and children remain vulnerable to poverty, commercial sexual exploitation as well as sexual violence related to the country's long-standing conflict.

Children living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are being exposed to life-threatening forms of neglect – neglect brought because of poverty.

Congolese families can have as many as 10 to 12 children in the same household. This creates a family dynamic that changes the relationship between parents and their children. Parents’ primary concerns become the survival of the entire family, instead of the welfare of each individual child. The result of this is that children tend to bear the burden of parental stress and poverty.

Parents have difficulty coming to terms with what large family sizes and limited resources mean for their parental abilities. When confronted with failure, parents sometimes accuse their children of “theft, dishonesty and even witchcraft,” according to Christian Mushilehe of AFEDE (Aide aux Femmes et Enfants pour le Développement de l’Environnement Endogène).

Making sure that needy families are supported is essential to preventing child abandonment. Laws to protect children from such forms of abuse have been developed in the DRC. Enforcing these laws, however, is often easier said than done. For one, the national police force’s Child Protection Unit is underfunded. But the problem of child abandonment, in relation to poverty, is a systemic one, bound up in economic and demographic issues, making it more complicated than a simple legal matter.

Children cast out of their homes are left to fend for themselves. Many of them end up on the streets, forced to beg for their living – or worse. Young girls are vulnerable to prostitution. They are recruited by the madams who own brothels. For many of the girls with no place else to go, the brothels offer more protection than they would have alone on city streets.

Wealthy brothel owners in the city of Bukavu, located in the DRC’s South Kivu province, have proved difficult to close down for good.

In related news, the United Nations Security Council called for institutions to be strengthened in advance of the DRC’s upcoming elections, slated to begin in November 2011. Support for domestic courts and rule of law were among the reforms encouraged.

Security challenges related to rule of law continue to present themselves in the DRC’s North and South Kivu provinces, as well as in Orientale. The current international peacekeeping force in the region, known as MONUSCO, is helping to ensure that the Congolese people are able to access justice, education, health care and other essential services.

In addition the sexual exploitation of commercial sex trafficking, women and children in conflict-affected areas must contend with sexual assault and other human rights abuses. A study published last week in the American Journal of Public Health found that 400,000 women and girls aged 15-49 were raped in a 12-month period between 2006 and 2007.