Teen reporters in Kinshasa stand up for the rights of children

Teen reporters in Kinshasa stand up for the rights of children

Young reporters get to work in Gambela market in Kinshasa.

(Children’s Radio Foundation/Sydelle Willow Smith)

In a small, hot room in downtown Kinshasa, 15-year-old Bernice easily lifts her voice above the drone of the city’s incessantly heavy traffic, which pours into the room through an open window. She flits confidently between Lingala, French and near perfect English.

“Sometimes adults are not very receptive to certain new ideas that can be beneficial for children,” says Bernice. “We know what is good for us, and we can spread the message better than adults. Our society won’t find solutions for many of its problems if it doesn’t listen to its children.”

Bernice is one of 800 young reporters being trained across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), through UNICEF DRC’s child participation programme, which was first piloted in 2011.

According to Yves Willemot, head of communications for UNICEF DRC: “Children still have an open mind. They see things differently to how we adults do. Giving them the means to document their community enriches our experience as adults. It can also help to advocate for change,” he adds.

One area where the young reporters, including Bernice, have played an important advocacy role, is in their ongoing campaign to end the harmful and prevalent practice of child marriage; UNICEF figures from 2016 suggest that in DRC 10 per cent of girls are married before the age of 15, and 37 per cent married before the age of 18.

UNICEF’s young reporters have put together a range of content that seeks to raise awareness about the negative effects of child marriage, which include the various health risks of girls having to give birth before their bodies are fully developed (a major driver of the country’s high infant mortality rate), and the socio-economic impact of curtailing girls’ education early.

Through short television and radio documentaries produced and recorded by Bernice and her peers and regularly broadcast on local and national stations, as well as articles posted on UNICEF DRC’s blog, in 2016 the child reporters helped bring about a revision to an article in the Congolese Family Code on Minimum Age for Marriage, which was raised from 16 to 18 years.

“I am very proud of the work I have done as a child reporter,” Bernice says, though she confesses that her parents still worry that it is distracting her from her schooling. In 2014, Bernice had to take time away from school to travel to Addis Ababa for a UN summit on children’s rights. She says the trip convinced her that she’d one day like to work for the UN with a focus on women’s rights issues across Africa. “My father is not keen on this idea,” she adds with a wry smile.

Congo remains a deeply patriarchal society, and in harbouring such grand ambitions, Bernice is still the exception rather than the rule. Opportunities for most Congolese girls and young women remain limited by a range of cultural factors, within family structures that have often been fractured by political and economic instability and decades of war.

Despite the 2016 change to the legal marriage age, an under-resourced and corrupt legal system has also failed to stop many young girls from being forced into child marriage or other forms of domestic and sexual enslavement.

Giving children a voice

Around Kinshasa’s bustling and labyrinthine Gambela market, crowds of street children, many of them girls, have chosen homelessness over the various human rights abuses and threats they experienced in their former familial environments. There are approximately 25,000 children living on the streets of Kinshasa, where many young girls are coerced into sex work as the only alternative to child marriage.

Miriam, 16, was one of these children, and her story is similar to many of the girls who find themselves on the unforgiving streets of Congo’s capital. Orphaned and repeatedly displaced by war and poverty, Miriam was exploited by her extended family, and sexually propositioned by a much older man in whose house she’d been employed as a domestic servant.

“Even though he was just married, he wanted to rape me,” Miriam says of her former employer. “He showed me a bag full of money to try to get me to give in to him. I couldn’t go through with it, so I left home.”

Since 2015, Children’s Radio Foundation has been running a project that forms part of a continuum with UNICEF’s work, but with a particular focus on street children like Miriam. The project uses the considerable reach of local radio to give these children a voice and enable them to share their stories and outlooks. This helps to challenge prevalent negative perceptions of street children as outcasts, thieves and prostitutes.

Miriam is one of 30 child reporters to have gone through this project’s training. Since the beginning of 2016, these reporters have been producing and airing a weekly Sunday radio programme called Mungongo ya Mwana, meaning The Voice of a Child in Lingala, on a local community radio station.

“Radio can play a very important role in protecting human rights for vulnerable young people,” says Clemence Petit-Perrot, one of the programme directors at Children’s Radio Foundation.

“There still aren’t a lot of spaces for young people to hear other young people sharing their own experiences about anything. These kids living on the streets, they should be able to speak about their own experiences,” she adds.

Raising awareness

Bob Yala is a softly-spoken former Congolese journalist who coordinates Children’s Radio Foundation’s project and training on the ground in Kinshasa. He believes that helping to raise awareness of the plight of street children can mobilise the local community to take a firm stance against any form of discrimination targeting children in general, and those living on the street in particular.

As with UNICEF’s child reporters programme, child marriage is one of the pertinent topics that has been regularly covered in the broadcasts put together by Yala’s child reporters. “Our reporters have developed enough self-confidence to educate others, including parents, concerning child marriage. The girls know their rights, and they can defend them,” Yala says. The project also works in partnership with the police’s child protection unit to monitor child marriage in Kinshasa.

However, for all the progress, Yala concedes that at the beginning of this year he lost two of his female reporters to forced marriages, which he says upset him greatly. Miriam was one of these girls: her older sister and legal guardian came to Kinshasa and insisted that Miriam return to the east of the country, where a marriage had been arranged with an older man who already had children with another woman.

“We still experience big difficulties in terms of drawing a line between protecting children living on the street and ensuring or supporting family re-unification when both parties desire this,” Yala says. “Unfortunately, once youth have been sent back into their families, they sometimes still end up doing things according to their family’s wishes, including getting married against their own will.”

But Bernice remains confident that the work she and the other child reporters are doing to raise awareness about issues like child marriage can positively impact the attitudes of their families as well. She uses the example of her own family, who she says “took a lot of convincing” before they eventually began to appreciate the value of her involvement in UNICEF’s programme.

“Openness and a willingness to listen are paramount,” Willemot says of the role that parents and other adults can play in determining the success of the child reporters programme.

Ultimately, Willemot believes that the programme needs to create a common consensus that “the most important right of a child is to be a child, and to remain a child.”