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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 18 October 2006

[John Cummings in the Chair]

Street Children (Congo)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]

9.30 am

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this debate, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State for International Development will respond. The fact that he is with us this morning shows the significance that he places on the subject.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has had a turbulent recent history. Colleagues in the Chamber today will be au fait with events of the past 40 years, but during the past decade thousands of child soldiers have been thrown to the forefront of the conflict. The United Nations mission to Congo—MONUC—was deployed in the DRC in 2003, and it now constitutes the largest peacekeeping force in the world.

Living without shelter, access to health care and food has meant according to current estimates that, since the conflict began in 1996-97, 4 million people have died over and above what would normally be expected. That is a colossal increase in mortality. It is the most lethal conflict since the second world war, and most of the dead are women and children. The lives of the children, more than anyone else, continue to be devastated by the ongoing conflict in the east of the country.

War not only kills children but destroys the infrastructure that provides them with food, medicine, education and shelter—the very social fabric that would otherwise provide them with protection, care and hope. As a result, many children living with the consequences of war end up being conscripted into armed groups, are accused of being witches or are forced to undertake dangerous and exploitative work just to survive. Invariably they are pushed into a life on the streets.

There are more than 250,000 homeless children in the DRC. More than 40,000 children live and work on the streets of Kinshasa alone. These children are regularly beaten and sometimes even murdered. They are subject to frequent sexual abuse and, due to the lack of health care, die from illnesses that are both preventable and curable. In general, they have no access to education.

Our Government are the largest European Union provider of bilateral funds to the DRC. They have committed the support of the British public to the people of that nation. It is a long-term commitment that will help build a viable nation and establish the security and opportunities for people to lift themselves out of poverty. In June 2005, the all-party parliamentary group on street children received a report, “Your War is Not With Me”, from the British charity, War Child. As a result, the charity was invited to make a presentation on the street child crisis in the
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DRC to the all-party group. In turn, that led to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and I, the co-chairmen of the group, visiting Kinshasa last month. The visit engaged street children and established an informed basis on which our group can support the efforts of the Government and the international community in responding to this acute crisis.

Unemployment and a lack of income-generating opportunities have stretched the capacity of households to function as viable economic units. Divorce is increasingly common, and those children who are left with their mother are a burden that the extended family can rarely bear. Many children therefore end up working on the streets. Children who remain with their father are often marginalised by their stepmother in order to create the economic space to provide for her own children. Increasingly, HIV/AIDS results in the death of both parents, leaving children with the extended family, which is rarely able to care for them.

Within that framework, fetish priests turned pastors have established thousands of private revivalist churches in the major cities. Some of those fetish pastors regularly accuse children of witchcraft. For example, if a pastor is unable to cure a parent of illness through prayer, he will claim that a bewitched child in the family is the obstacle and request additional fees to perform an exorcism. Those children are often tortured in unimaginable ways by the fetish pastor as part of the exorcism process. That abuse is enabled by a widespread lack of education, which makes parents vulnerable to the exploitation of a deep-seated belief in witchcraft. Accusation of sorcery and witchcraft is the single largest factor resulting in children being pushed out of their families and on to the streets of the DRC.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough and I were fortunate enough to visit some of the centres that War Child is supporting which provide shelter and protection for some of the younger street children and help with family tracing, mediation and reintegration. War Child also arranged for us to meet some of the youths who are still living on the streets. I want to give hon. Members a couple of examples of children who found themselves on the street and describe some of the challenges that they faced—and still face.

Joseph was nine years old when his parents died of HIV/AIDS. He became a burden to the extended family as an extra mouth to feed. A local fetish pastor accused Joseph of bewitching his parents and causing their deaths. The extended family beat him, and he was finally pushed on to the streets. He slept at the local market, scavenging for food, occasionally stealing and earning pennies by carrying heavy bags and sacks of produce for people. The police would regularly seek him out, accusing him of witchcraft and telling him that he could not stay at the market. On one occasion he was kicked so hard by a police officer that two of his ribs were broken. Eventually, Joseph found his way to the Ameema abandoned children’s centre, which is supported by War Child. He is now safe, and trained War Child staff are trying to reintegrate him gradually with his family, but the process will take time, as strongly held attitudes have to be overcome.

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Evelyn’s mother suffers from epilepsy, which makes it difficult for her to work and to generate income. Her father left them because of that, and Evelyn and her mother turned to the extended family for support. Epilepsy is not well understood, and Evelyn’s mother was accused of witchcraft and shunned by her family. She became separated from Evelyn, who was a baby at the time and was left to the care of her grandmother. Evelyn grew up believing that her grandmother was her real mother, but other children would tease her that her mother was a witch. Evelyn eventually tried to find her real mother and made contact with her, but she was accused of consorting with a witch and was pushed on to the streets, where she joined her mother. Evelyn was repeatedly raped during her time on the streets, and at the age of 12 she fell pregnant. Soon after that, Evelyn and her baby were identified and were helped by one of the abandoned children’s centres supported by War Child.

Accusations of sorcery and witchcraft are the primary reasons why children end up on the street in the DRC, but the phenomenon is compounded by an increasing divorce rate in the face of high unemployment and extremely low income.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): When I went to the DRC some years ago, it was wonderful to see what War Child was doing. I visited a nun who was the embodiment of the Christian spirit. The biggest concern was finding employment for the younger people whom it got off the streets. There did not seem to be that much practical work for them, so effectively the charity cared for them until they were more mature. What opportunities does my hon. Friend think there are, because that will be the test?

Mr. Brown: From what I witnessed in my short time there, I know that my hon. Friend is correct. I share his concern and I will come on to that, as some good work is going on but it very much needs to be extended.

It is common for children to have to work on the streets and fend for themselves during the day, because their families are simply unable to care for them. Those street-working children are particularly vulnerable to becoming fully fledged children of the streets. As well as the 40,000 street children in Kinshasa, there are thousands more in other cities such as Mbuji-Mayi, Bukavu, Lubumbashi and Goma. The street child problem in the DRC is at crisis level. Street children survive through begging and stealing, which brings them into conflict with the law. Many undertake arduous work such as portering and regularly smoke marijuana to numb the effect of the reality in which they live.

Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that some progress is being made by the Government of the DRC in developing legislation and judicial codes as a platform for juvenile justice and as a basis for dealing with fetish pastors and abuses against children. That progress is limited to the commitment of individual civil servants who are rarely paid and is primarily confined to paper in a country where justice is rarely applied and more often corrupted.

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Non-governmental organisations including international charities such as War Child are supporting locally run centres in the provision of family tracing, mediation and reintegration of street children. They are also providing income-generating support for street youths, but there is no coherent structure to bring those efforts together in a focused and co-ordinated way to maximise the limited resources available for addressing the crisis. Many of the civil servants and key service providers rarely receive salaries, so have to spend their time developing other forms of income.

Why is the street child crisis in the DRC anything to do with us? Why should our Government seek to allocate time, money and expertise to resolving the crisis, when we are already doing so much in the DRC? Street children in the DRC suffer unimaginable poverty. The marginalisation and suffering that extreme poverty brings is a frightening indicator of state destabilisation. Destabilised states such as the DRC become havens of unrest, violence and even regional and global insecurity. We need only to look to Afghanistan as a typical example of that. That is well recognised by the Department for International Development, which is investing upwards of £60 million per year, and more broadly by the UK Government, who have invested upwards of £30 million in the election process in the DRC. It is in the interests of national security to work with partners from the developed world in creating stable, viable states throughout the developing world and in so doing combat the cancer of poverty.

It is also important that we recognise the established and deep commitment of the British public to addressing poverty, especially among the most marginalised people such as street children. That was demonstrated by the mass participation in and commitment to the Make Poverty History campaign, and is reflected in the millennium development goals to which the UK Government have already signed up. As a signatory to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, the Government are committed to securing the rights of children by

The British economy is the fourth largest in the world, which establishes the UK as one of the most significant signatories to the convention on the rights of the child. The UK must therefore take a significant proportion of responsibility for ensuring that the rights of children, especially those who are marginalised, are realised in countries such as the DRC.

The all-party parliamentary group on street children is considering some draft proposals based on the fact that the UK Government have significant influence as well as responsibility in the DRC because of the scale of the commitment made on behalf of the British people. Consideration should be given to investment in education sector reform. Development is crucial both in formal and non-formal education, and the inclusion of women is especially important. The education of women will reduce their vulnerability and indirectly the vulnerability of their children. The education of children, especially marginalised children, will establish a key socialising process in its own right and a basis on which exclusion can be overcome. Crucially, education per se will address the deep-seated belief in witchcraft
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and the subsequent vulnerability of many children. That must be a priority for DFID and, through Foreign Office lobbying, for the European Union.

Investment is required in the strategic architecture to ensure focus, direction, best practice and coherence across all agencies working with marginalised children in the DRC, especially street children. At the broadest level, that should involve the allocation of resources and technical assistance to support the Government of the DRC in developing a plan for the implementation of the convention on the rights of the child to which the DRC is already a signatory. That plan must make specific reference to marginalised groups of children, especially street children and those formerly associated with fighting forces as child soldiers. The key elements of the plan and specific mention of street children must be reflected in DFID’s country-engagement plan and subsequently the country strategy that is being developed. Also, the key elements of the plan must be championed by Foreign Office policy and in its advocacy efforts with other significant bilateral and multilateral partners of the Government of the DRC, especially the EU.

Clear human rights indicators that refer to the status of marginalised children must be developed as part of the national plan to implement the convention on the rights of the child. Investment in the capacity of state actors to service and protect the rights of marginalised children and in civil society to monitor those indictors, with specific reference to street children and children formerly associated with fighting forces, will be required. On that basis, targets to improve the status of marginalised children must be agreed with the Government of the DRC and a resourcing strategy must be negotiated to meet those targets and ensure that they are achieved. As a result of the extreme levels of corruption and impunity, the achievements of those targets and verification of indictors must become a conditional element of the UK Government’s aid provision to the DRC.

War Child will be undertaking participatory research with street children in Kinshasa by the end of this year. The learning from work of NGOs such as War Child must be channelled into the UK Government’s strategic engagement with the Government of the DRC, not least through the Foreign Office and DFID’s developing country strategy for the DRC. In that way we will facilitate a crucial element of the convention on the rights of the child by ensuring that children are listened to.

Finally, the UK Government must work closely with civil society, especially local and international NGOs and Churches, the Government of the DRC and through local business networks. That work should be the basis for the development of a national strategy that will support the development of micro-enterprise nurseries, training and practical income-generating initiatives across acutely vulnerable communities.

I will conclude, because I know that colleagues want to take part in today’s debate. I look forward to the Secretary of State’s response and thank him for giving a commitment to meet a delegation from the all-party parliamentary group at the end of this month—I am delighted about that, as are my colleagues. I put on record my thanks to War Child for giving me and the hon. Member for Gainsborough the opportunity to
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visit the country to see the work that goes on. War Child is to be congratulated on its efforts. A major task lies before it and everyone else involved with the issue.

9.49 am

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown). As he said, we visited the DRC recently. It has about the same population as the UK, although it is the size of western Europe. Throughout the major cities the national street population could be more than 60,000—that is an estimate as we cannot be completely accurate—which is 0.1 per cent. of the entire population. That does not include tens of thousands of children made homeless by displacement because of the continuing conflict in the east.

Some 50 per cent. of the republic’s population are children and 47 per cent. are under 14. As one walks around Kinshasa, as we did, it is extraordinary to see the sheer youth of the population—the impression is overwhelming. One hardly ever sees old people, and I was pretty well the oldest person that I came across during the entire week that we spent there, which is rather strange for someone from this country. I assume that the difficulty of living is such that all the old people are dead—not to put too fine a point on it. Some of the children on the streets were born there, and there is now a second generation of children living on the streets. On our visits, we regularly saw very young women—teenagers—with infants on the streets. This is therefore a crisis of staggering proportions in what is the poorest country in the world.

My colleague, the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway, explained why so many children end up on the streets, but the problem is made far worse by the system of organised kleptocracy initiated by Mr. Mobutu. We talked to several politicians, who, in my view, are a sorry lot of people. They were the only people who appeared to have carpets, computers or anything in their offices. The senior civil servants that we talked to—the equivalent of permanent secretaries in our system—had nothing. We talked to one who literally lived in a bare office, with no salary, no computer and with just a coat hanger on the wall. He was clearly doing a wonderful job with absolutely no resources. Of course, we were treated politely by politicians, as I would hope, given that this country is one of the DRC’s main bilateral funders.

When it came to it, most of the politicians that we met were honest enough to admit that, before the elections, they had been concerned that the fetish pastors had too much political power to be dealt with. When one goes around Kinshasa, it is staggering to see the sheer volume of new churches that are going up, and the politicians do not have the political will to deal with that growing number of churches. In theory, churches are supposed to be registered, and the constitution absolutely forbids people from dealing with children as though they were witches. As I said, however, the politicians ignore the street child problem.

I should say that there is absolutely no evidence that the mainstream Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, are involved in these practices, and many of the new evangelical Churches do a good job. However, there is a relatively small number of fetish pastors who
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make a living by denouncing children as witches. It is an extraordinary situation. People in extended families are under such economic pressure that they simply cannot cope with another child. That child’s parents might have died from AIDS or other causes, but the pastor is brought in and literally accuses the child there and then of being a witch. Sometimes the child is tortured and, more often than not, they are thrown out on to the streets. This is therefore a real problem, and I was staggered by it. People in this country joke a bit about witches and do not take the issue entirely seriously. We thought of writing to J.K. Rowling, who has made a lot of money talking about witchcraft. Perhaps she could donate a bit of money to deal with a situation in which witchcraft is a serious problem and in which tens of thousands of children suffer as a result of being accused of being witches.

It is common for governors to round up and incarcerate children regularly; indeed, the policy is popular with the general population because many street children are unpopular with them. During one round-up, the police beat a boy called Kondikor, from the Delveaux area of Kinshasa, on the head with an iron bar and then the butt of a gun, before leaving him to die in the street. We met the governor of Kinshasa. I have never seen a man with so many mobile phones in his office—apparently, he needs them to contact his various girlfriends. He was one of the few people we met who had any kind of affluence about his person, but he has now been removed by a military governor, thank God. He was a very warm personality and claimed that he was a personal friend of the street children. He said that he had found a number of jobs for them, including 700 jobs as street cleaners. We thought that that was an interesting initiative, so we went on to the streets to talk to some of those street cleaners. As it happened, some of those jobs had been created—with western aid, it must be said—but they had all gone to the families of existing street cleaners, not the street children. So much for the efforts of the governor of Kinshasa.

As the DRC takes its first faltering steps towards democracy, street children are becoming more vulnerable. Democracy la DRC sees politicians mobilise large groups of street children for their political rallies. That leads the children back into confrontation with the law, resulting in beatings, incarceration and further abuse. The politicians then blame the children, thereby reinforcing negative popular opinion, and the whole thing goes around in a circle. In the meantime, many of these children are held in detention without trial. Incidentally, I should say that although we call them children all the time, and a lot of children are involved, there are also a lot of young men, and we met men in their early 20s who had never had a home.

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