DR Congo

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, helping children of the mines find a way out

By Michelle Marrion

MBUJI MAYI, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 26 February 2013 – The roads I travel to get to the Matempu diamond mine, nestled in the Bakwa Tshimuna area of Kasai Oriental’s capital city Mbuji Mayi, are precarious – ambiguous and muddy, with deep, sinking holes in the red earth from which young faces peek out.

Even the residential areas are being dug up. As I look at the rolling hills, pockmarked terrain as far as the eye can see, I find it difficult to grasp that we are in the centre of the natural industrial diamond capital of the world, where nearly four out of ten children aged 5–14 are labourers.

UNICEF correspondent Michelle Marrion reports on how UNICEF is supporting efforts to find child labourers a way out of the diamond mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Child labour and exploitation

The Congolese Law on Protection of the Child sets the minimum working age at 16 and prohibits all hazardous forms of child labour and sexual exploitation. However, according to the Mines Ministry Government, the decline of government-regulated mines in the area is a large part of the reason almost all of the country’s diamond production has become more and more artisanal, thus more difficult to regulate.

We drive as far as possible and start the trek to the mining site on foot, passing a young girl selling roasted corn on the cob. UNICEF Child Protection Officer Diane Kimboko explains the expression ‘children of the mines’, saying that it encompasses not only children working the mines, but also those caring for younger siblings at home to allow their parents to work and those engaging in enterprises surrounding the mines, such as selling food, water and sexual favors along the perimeter of the sites.

Mypoi Nyambu, member of a community management committee in Bakwa Tshimuna that is working with UNICEF on the ground, says, “Adult vendors employ children, especially girls, in their peripheral enterprises to entice workers to come buy green beans or fufu, for example. Then, many have sexual relations with the young helpers as part of the transaction.”

Back-breaking work, not education

We turn a corner through high grass and approach a plateau on which dozens of little workers are busy with their jobs. The adults are not far, digging pits that drop as deep as 40 metres to get to the layer of the earth where diamonds can be found.

The small stature of children makes it easier for them to descend into these pits. Their main task at this site, though, is carrying sacks of earth over a foothill to a plateau where they sieve through them in ponds of water in search of diamonds.

“The sacks they carry are too heavy for them and can damage their developing vertebras,” Mr. Nyambu points out.

Over another foothill from where the earth is being excavated, I meet 14-year-old Samuel, who says he abandoned his education and began working five years ago because he had no one to pay his school fees. Samuel fits the typical profile of children of the mines – they are 5–18 years old, working either to supplement the family income or to support child-headed households while their parents are away for three to four months at a time harvesting produce to sell in the marketplaces.

Simply trying to survive

“That is why UNICEF is focusing on prevention and support of cases of violence and child abuse through the establishment and capacity reinforcement of community-based child protection committees. We also realize the importance of creating income-generating activities for the families of these children, as well,” says Ms. Kimboko.

As we stroll through the local market, instead of the fruits and vegetables you’re likely to find in the average market, we find most vendors selling gem crops of the diamond variety. Every other shop or open air boutique is a diamond appraiser or seller.

Inside one of these shops, we find two children hovering over a dealer’s desk. The clear white diamonds they place on his table lie in stark contrast to their red palms, stained by the soil they have been sifting through the day. Gems appreciate in value as they pass from dealer to consumer, but, for their work, these children earn an average of US$1–2 per day.

It is in these same markets and mines that Théodore Tshibangu, from community organization RECOPE (Community Child Protection Network), carries out his work identifying child labourers. ‘Papa Théo’ and teams of committee members offer these children placement in programmes to assist them in transitioning out of a life in the mines through child-friendly day centres in vulnerable areas such as Bakwa Tshimuna. The centres are managed by Save the Children, in partnership with UNICEF and with funding from the Government of Japan.

“These children are simply trying to survive,” says Ms. Kimboko. “Working all day leaves opportunity for little else. UNICEF and partners are fighting against the psychological and physical risks that go along with work in the mines so that these children can return to a normal cycle of childhood, meaning school or vocational training, a family life and the continuation of a normal adult life.”