In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a crackdown on trafficking rings is not enough - there is also the question of parental responsbility. And extreme poverty.
KINSHASA —Clandestine networks describing themselves as charities or claiming connections with churches have been tricking Congolese parents into releasing children into their care, only to sell the young victims as sex slaves or unpaid workers.
The information comes in a finding by a parliamentary commissionin in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). “Several teenage girls were taken to Lebanon to become sex slaves and be used for other types of dirty work,” says parliament member Benjamin Mukulungu, who estimates that between 500 and 1,000 children are still thought to be there.
According to the Global Forum of Francophone Women, which first spoke out against these networks and helped repatriate five victims, these young women are recruited in Kinshasa, DRC’s capital, by an agency that promises them decent jobs in Lebanon. The girls are attracted by the prospect of working in hospitals or in supermarkets where they are told they can earn $2,500 a month.
But there is none of that once they reach Lebanon. Instead, they are sold to local families who shamelessly exploit them. Inside the DRC, some networks, hidden behind the titles of international charitable NGOs, lie to the parents by saying that they will take care of their children’s future, so as to convince them to let their sons and daughters go.
But once they reach their destination, the tutors become torturers.
Such was the case of five boys, between 10 and 13 years old, who were rescued from their persecutors. The boys, who had to stay in the hospital for several months after they were rescued, were kidnapped three years ago in the southwestern city of Tshikapa.
“I was taken by force by a man we called ‘Happiness Daddy’ while I was in the church where my dad helps. That man promised me that white people would take the greatest care of me. In Kinshasa, he taught me how to steal and how to be a porter,” the boy recalls.
“They would beat us up if we didn’t steal and if we didn’t carry the bags of merchants and clients at the market,” says another child, showing his sprained arm. He claims that he once stole as much as $10,000. But when one of them refused to take cannabis, a dispute erupted, thus alerting the police, who were then able to identify the child-trafficking network.
Police contacted one of the parents once the boys were found. When he heard the news, the dad couldn’t believe his ears. “We hadn’t seen him in three years, so we had already accepted he was dead,” he recalls.
A common scourge
Child trafficking has become common in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Last August, police apprehended a 45-year-old man in Kamako. He was preparing to send two 12-year-old girls to Angola. He admitted to the facts in court and said that in June he sold two girls, ages 13 and 14, in Angola for $600 each. The trafficking of young girls is widespread in Tshela, a territory close to the Angola border.
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Protecting the innocent (photo: Steve Evans)
There are also cases in which parents entrust their children to people who claim to work for NGOs. In November, 13 children aged between 1 and 10 years old were rescued in Masina (near the capital of Kinshasa) in the house of people who said they worked for a charity. The suspects had promised the parents they would send the children to school.
“The kids had yellowish hair and their bellies were swollen by kwashiorkor,” or malnutrition, explains Willy Makiashi, an elected representative from Gungu — a town in the Bandundu Province — who took part in the search for the children.
In April 2012, one of these NGOs was alleged to have taken 15 children between ages six and eight from their hometown of Seke-Banza in the western part of the country. “These people told the parents that their kids would be sent to the United States, where they would be taken care of, and they offered them money in exchange,” says a doctor from Seke-Banza’s hospital.
“The sanctions against parents who entrust their children to someone else must be drastic,” says child advocate Julie Lungu. “The government must both open more courts for children and reinforce the law to better protect children’s rights.”
Mado Mpezo, captain of a police section specializing in the protection of children and women, urges parents “to be more vigilant and more responsible.”