Mr. Kasese is a coordinator for the non-governmental organization network of street children and youth educators, REJEER, which encompasses 120 associations involved in child protection across DR Congo.
An estimated 30,000 children under the age of 18 live on the country’s streets, with the majority in the capital, Kinshasa. An ever increasing number are girls – many of them work as prostitutes and some are just 10 years old.
Mr. Kasese and his peers aim to provide such children with ready access to health care, psycho-social assistance, food, clean water, shelter and education. Yet a sustainable solution depends on the whole community, and poverty is the major cause of the increasing phenomenon of street children in urban areas.
Exposed to abuse
“In villages, families are poor but live off the fruits of their fields, whereas people in the urban areas depend on money for survival. Many parents just do not have enough to feed all the mouths under their roof,” explains Mr. Kasese. “Even though children are considered as a treasure by Congolese society, in a context of poverty they become a nuisance.”
It is a situation that is further aggravated by superstition, according to UNICEF Child Protection Officer Eloge Olengabo. “Families who cannot fend for themselves frequently take refuge in the belief that their bad luck is rooted in the witchcraft of their offspring,” he says.
Gilles, 15, has been living in the streets of Kinshasa for the better part of his childhood, cleaning cars to make a living. At night he hangs out with his peers – looking forward to Mr. Kasese’s van and the glimmer of hope that it brings. “To survive I do a lot of sports,” he says, with a shy smile. And indeed his arms show an impressive set of biceps. “Hopefully one day, when I am a grown man, I will also help street children.”
“Some people consider these youngsters as trouble for the public order, but they are just children who need someone to talk to,” says Kape Benda-Benda, who heads one of the five mobile teams that travel around Kinshasa every evening. “We work to sensitize the children on the actual value of their lives and the communities on their responsibility to take care of them.”
Mr. Kasese is grateful for UNICEF’s support on social policy and says the next step is for the Government to set up a mechanism that gives poor families free access to basic social services. Even though he sees despair in the faces of children every night, he hopes for an improvement in their situation. “These youngsters have an enormous potential. It depends on us to bring this light to shine.”
It is a way forward that is reiterated by UNICEF Representative in DR Congo Pierrette Vu Thi. “We have a shared responsibility to protect all children, and in particular those who are the most vulnerable,” she says. “If the community, the Government and its partners work hand in hand we can actually provide these youngsters with a bright future.”