The situation of children in the DRC

The Democratic Republic of Congo is facing a severe humanitarian crisis, especially for children. They are being forced into armed conflicts and become victims of child soldiering, sexual violence, poverty, diseases, and malnutrition. Access to clean water, food, and fundamental rights is a daily challenge for them. Their living conditions are worsening as their rights are violated, and they face the constant threat of violence from armed groups. Some children are even abducted and forced to join military forces. The situation is one of the worst in the world and requires urgent attention to protect the human rights of these vulnerable children.

DRC in a nutshell

The Democratic Republic of Congo, also known as DRC, is the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa and the second largest in the continent after Algeria. Its population has since increased to 92.13 million in 2023. Although the country has a coastline of 25 miles along the Atlantic Ocean, it is mainly landlocked and shares borders with 9 neighboring countries such as Angola, Zambia, Tanzania, and Congo. The country was colonized by Belgium for 80 years and gained independence in 1960, but since then, it has been affected by severe civil conflicts and war. The political context is marked by conflicts that erupted in the 1990s and escalated under the rule of former president Laurent Kabila, his son Joseph Kabila and now Felix Chisekedi. The country continues to experience political repression, delays in democratic elections, and violence by state security forces against its citizens.

State of Children's Rights

The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 77% of its population living in poverty and earning less than $1.90 a day. It is more likely than not that the average household in the DRC is poor and has more dependents, especially children. Educational level is a key factor in determining socio-economic status in the DRC, where the higher the educational level of the head of household, the less likely the family is to be poor. Higher education improves overall life outcomes for children and families, leading to improved nutrition, health, and access to essential services. Other socio-economic problems include underemployment among young people, with limited visible access to jobs and professional mobility programs.

Right of Education 

In order to satisfy the needs of children, education is crucial. In the DRC, education provides a path towards a hopeful future, but it remains out of reach for nearly 7 million children aged 5 to 17. Political instability and natural disasters have prevented the DRC from achieving universal primary education for children. Furthermore, the main financial costs of direct and indirect expenses associated with supporting a child’s education are the responsibility of parents. There are serious economic disparities between families that can afford to pay for their children’s schooling, resulting in an uneven distribution of schools and infrastructure across the country. The quality of education is another concern as the rate of qualified teachers is very low, and repetition and dropout rates are high for children attending school. Socio-cultural barriers and vulnerabilities such as child labor, child marriage, health conditions, and early pregnancies all have an impact on a child’s chances of going to school. The probability of attending school for girls is especially concerning, with UNICEF reporting that 52.7% of girls aged 5 to 17 do not attend school in the DRC.

The right to health

The right to health in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is at serious risk from birth onwards. The country’s weak healthcare system and extreme poverty make the health of Congolese citizens vulnerable (European Commission, 2018). In addition, there are several ongoing epidemics that kill thousands of children in the DRC each year, and the healthcare system is in poor condition and unable to cope with deadly health crises (UNICEF, 2020). Measles, cholera, and malaria have ravaged the country, with children being the main victims of these diseases. In 2019, cholera killed 540 people, half of whom were children, due to poor sanitation systems and impure drinking water (Humanium, 2021). Measles, a more serious epidemic, caused 6,200 deaths in 2019-2020, and 85% of these deaths were children under the age of 5 (UNICEF, 2020). More than 3.3 million children are estimated to be deprived of adequate healthcare (UNICEF, 2020). As of 2023, the situation in the DRC remains largely unchanged, with ongoing epidemics and a weak healthcare system continuing to put the health of Congolese citizens at risk.

Right to Food

It has been documented that as of 2023, 30% of Congolese children are underweight, and there is a widespread problem of anemia in children aged 6 months to 5 years. The rate of malnourished children is acute, with at least 2.5 million children suffering from malnutrition, likely to die if they do not receive enough food (World Food Programme, 2023). Children living in remote areas affected by conflict and displaced children are likely to go without food as it is challenging for humanitarian workers to reach them (Al Jazeera, 2018).

Malnutrition is an ongoing problem for Congolese children, with 50% of them suffering from stunted growth, affecting their well-being and development (World Health Organization, 2023). Malnutrition can be attributed to poor nutrition, episodes of infection, and insufficient psychosocial interaction (i.e., lack of access to education). The DRC suffers greatly from acute malnutrition in alarming numbers, which has been defined as a “silent crisis” (European Commission, 2018). The situation remains dire, with millions of children at risk of starvation due to the ongoing conflict in the country and inadequate resources to address the problem.

Risk factors → Specific challenges in the country.

Poverty and street children.

Several key factors contribute to homelessness: war conflicts, internal displacement, illness, and unemployment, all of which increase the rate of homeless children. Political instability and armed conflicts have been the main causes of poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since the 1990s.
Poverty and homelessness can also be attributed to families who are unwilling to adopt orphans and unwanted children, where children have no choice but to live on the streets. In conflicts where rape is used as a tactic of war, women become pregnant and abandon their child due to the humiliation and embarrassment from society, as well as feelings of shame.
Children born as a result of rape are therefore rejected and abandoned by their mother, and because there is no child protection institution in the country, children suffer greatly. Children of rape are also excluded from their community, causing them severe trauma and distress. These circumstances force children to live on the streets, a phenomenon also known as “street children” where children are exposed to violence and hardships on a daily basis. Poverty and the inability of families to provide for their children also result in abandoned children and ultimately homelessness. Street children are unsupervised, with no access to food, education, shelter, and other basic necessities. These circumstances make them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by adults and law enforcement who force them to engage in illegal criminal activities. Law enforcement has taken advantage of the vulnerability of street children by deliberately recruiting these children to disrupt political demonstrations and cause public disturbances, where many children are injured or even killed.

Children are further exploited by civilians who use them as porters, cleaners, or laborers in their homes and shops, paying them very little while making them work long hours and perform physically grueling labor. Adults also forced street children into illegal activities such as prostitution and drug trafficking.
In 2011, almost 30,000 children under the age of 18 were found to be homeless in the country’s capital, Kinshasa. What is most concerning is that girls are increasingly homeless, with some girls as young as ten years old. Homeless girls and boys are survivors of rape and sexual assault by older street boys and men.

Violence and sexual exploitation of children

Inequality behaviors against women and girls that occur in peacetime increase during armed conflict. While all civilians are heavily affected by armed conflict, studies have consistently shown that women and girls are more likely to be victims of violence and are targeted based on their gender.

In 2018, the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict documented that 277 girls were raped during intercommunal conflicts. Unequal power relations in peacetime are violently waged during war. Research on the DRC and war-related crimes of sexual violence shows that the state does not systematically prosecute sexual assault and refuses to criminalize forced marriage. Despite national laws in place to protect children from sexual violence\  and the presence of the issue on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council, no real protection is given to children in times of peace and in period of conflict.

Violent war conflicts in the DRC that have continued since the 1990s are largely associated with widespread rape, a method of violence used by combatants and military forces. Conflict in the eastern region of the country is a critical issue for children as they experience high levels of sexual and gender-based violence, and researchers found that survivors of sexual violence under the age of 18 in this region were more likely to suffer from gang rapes and attacks than adults.

Although the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence against children have been identified as civilians, rape of children by military personnel is also widespread (Kalisya et al., 2011). Children are used as part of military tactics by all combatant groups involved in conflicts. Planned attacks are also carried out against children by armed groups and their homes are also destroyed by armed groups who burn them down. There is also a serious lack of resources and support for families and children experiencing sexual violence. Shelter, food, and water are scarce, forcing many women and children into prostitution.

Forced displacement of children

Over the past two decades, more than 6 million civilians have been killed by government armed forces, and around 5 million people have been forced to move, making the conflict in the DRC the largest internal displacement situation in the world. Africa (HRW, 2018). Children are the first victims of conflict, uprooted from their homes, schools, families, and communities during war-related conflicts. Children enter into forced displacement voluntarily to avoid being recruited by armed groups.

Since 2017, 850,000 Congolese children have been forcibly displaced due to violent conflict in the Greater Kasai region and have had to survive in improvised huts, lacking necessities such as food, water, sanitation, shelter, and health care (UNICEF, 2017). The eastern region of the DRC recently saw an increase in displacement in 2018, forcing families to flee their villages and homes to live in informal shelters made of branches, exposing them to harsh weather conditions and threats to their safety (UNHCR, 2020).
Displaced children continue to be in urgent need of care, protection, and necessities.

Child soldiers and armed conflicts

Congolese children are the main victims of the war as they are regularly recruited by armed groups and the Congolese army, in some cases by force, to participate as fighters, porters, and escorts (Human Rights Watch, 2016). . Child soldiers are also illegally detained for long periods under harsh conditions: lack of food, clean water, and medical care. Armed conflicts are a persistent problem in specific regions of the DRC, and children are very vulnerable in these situations because they are helpless in the face of the brutality of militant groups.
Since 2001, the use and recruitment of child soldiers has been a tactic used by armed political groups, with up to 40% of their forces comprised of children (Child Soldiers International, 2004). Child soldiers recruited are often under 15 years old (Rakisits, 2009). In 2018 alone, 631 cases of recruitment and use of children in armed conflict were recorded by the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.
Given the increase in conflicts in various regions of the DRC, children are recruited by armed groups to serve as fighters, spies, and transporters. Children are part of the militia where they witness murders and other crimes, are sent to camps to learn how to use weapons, and then are forced to commit serious human rights violations against civilians and even their own families. In these cases, a child is not able to live out their childhood or go to school and get an education, they are forced into a life of violence and trauma.