The Invisible Children campaign did a brilliant job of stimulating outrage among young people in the West about Ugandan children forced to walk for miles every night to sleep in doorways and on the ground in a town or city where they would be protecting from marauding groups that abducted children to make them soldiers or sex slaves. In the morning, these children would walk to the miles back to their vulnerable villages, only to return to the relative safety of the city the next night. The documentaries were heartbreaking, the movement was strong among high school and university students, awareness, activism and compassion were sparked.
These children were innocent victims of the war raging around them, with poignant stories and sweet faces; they are the easy subjects of a strong advocacy and popular support campaign.
It seems that this campaign for the Ugandan children could be the foundation for future movements to attract attention to the plights of other groups of children around the world. Sadly, successful campaigns cannot be waged for everyone, especially for children whose plight is effectively overshadowed by massive amounts of violence and astonishing poverty.
Case in point: the street children of Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The United Nations estimates that there are about 15,000 children trying to make a living in the city. The official government estimate is that there are 40,000 street children in the country, with about half of these living in Kinshasa. They have been abandoned by their families, orphaned, have physical or mental disabilities or are ex-child soldiers who are associated with the war. The average age of these children is about 14 years old.
Some of these kids have been living on the streets for over a decade, even getting “married” and having their own second-generation street children. Gangs have been formed and prostitution and drug use is rampant.
Police brutality is rampant; the children are often beaten, arrested and imprisoned. Efforts have been made in the past to round up these children and relocate them to remote parts of the country, ostensibly to give them a comprehensive education on a farm and therefore make them functioning parts of society. The problem with this is that the children do not consent to this move, are not guaranteed decent living conditions on these farms, and it is unsure whether they are even paid or fed.
The children are sometimes accused of being sorcerers; a convenient way for a family or society to make these children and their responsibility towards them the feared “other” that must be ignored and feared.
And why isn’t anything happening to save these children? Children are supposed to be the bright hope for the future, the generation that will recreate their societies and improve upon their parents’ standards. With other major problems to consider, what with a death toll of 5 million from the protracted conflict in the eastern regions, the struggle over conflict minerals causing mass displacement and instability, a corrupt government, military and police force and an economy that simply cannot sustain its people, the children in the streets are simply not at the top of the priority list.
While there may be some well-meaning Congolese or international organizations that want to help, the phenomenon of street children does not happen in a vacuum. They are just another group of victims of violence, greed, indifference, marginalization and most especially, poverty. But for all of that, they are still children; damaged, traumatized and troubled, but children. What better reason is there to become involved in a movement and effort to end the cycle of violence in the DRC, support a sustainable economy and heal the wounds of society that has been destroyed to the point of pushing its children to the dangerous fringes?