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Is this Africa’s forgotten war?

12 February 2019

What’s happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

It rarely makes the headlines these days, but ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is devastating children’s lives.

Disputed elections have recently put the Democratic Republic of Congo back in the news. But, for more than 20 years, families have been struggling through blood-stained conflict. 

As always, those suffering most are children.

In order to properly understand life for children in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s important to look at the country’s past since colonisation by the Belgians in the 1870s:

  • 1870s Belgian King Leopold II sets about colonising the area as his private holding. During his reign Congoloese were used as forced labour and some historians estimate around 10 million people were killed.1
  • 1908 Congo Free State placed under Belgian rule following outrage  treatment of Congolese.
  • 1960 Independence, followed by civil war and temporary fragmentation of country.
  • 1965 Mobutu Sese Seko seizes power.
  • 1997 Rebels oust Mobutu. Laurent Kabila becomes president.
  • 1997-2003 Civil war, drawing in several neighbouring countries.
  • 2006 Presidential elections. Thousands are displaced in the north-east as the army and UN peacekeepers step up their drive to disarm irregular forces ahead of the elections.
  • 2006 Presidential and parliamentary polls are held – the first free elections in four decades. Joseph Kabila is declared winner of run-off presidential election. The poll has the general approval of international monitors.
  • 2007 Major outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.
  • 2011 Presidential and parliamentary elections. Mr Kabila gains another term. The vote is criticised abroad and the opposition disputes the result.
  • 2013 3,000-member UN Intervention Brigade deployed to fight and disarm rebels in the east.
  • 2015 Dozens are killed in protests against proposed electoral law changes, which the opposition say are designed to allow President Kabila to remain in power.
  • 2016  A political deal signed between President Kabila's ruling coalition and the opposition to delay the presidential election until 2018 sees Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo and his cabinet resign, paving the way for a new cabinet to include opposition figures.
  • 2017  DRC is experiencing a "mega-crisis", with conflict having forced 1.7 million people to flee their homes during the year, aid agencies say. Democratic Republic of Congois worst-affected by conflict displacement in the world, they say.
  • 2018 Presidential elections held at the end of the year with hopes they will lead to the Democratic Republic of Congo's first democratic transfer of power since independence. 
  • 2019 Felix Tshisekedi decared president. Election results are disputed by opposition. 

Whatever happens next in the Democratic Republic of Congo, children in the country have been living with conflict since they were born. Although they often to struggle to articulate how violence has affected their lives, they are missing out on the joy of childhood –  and we continue to do everything we can to give them a safe and happy future. 

Here are some of the life-threatening issues children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are facing and the work we are doing to support them.​

Children and their families are being displaced from their homes

Violence across the Democratic Republic of Congo has caused children and families to flee their homes. As of August 2018, more than 4.5 million people were displaced inside the country due to conflict. Others have tried to find safety in bordering countries.

This abrupt upheaval can have a devastating effect on children’s psychological well-being, particularly if they are separated from their parents. 

11-year-old Nyotte* and her brother were separated from their parents as they fled violent attacks on their village. Watch their story and how Save the Children supported them in Uganda.

Children are fighting malnutrition

Children are fighting malnutrition

Violence has drastically restricted movement around the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has, in turn, affected food distribution and caused local markets to collapse. As parents struggle to find food, their children are quickly becoming malnourished to life-threatening levels. 

Children who do survive malnutrition at an early age can face a lifetime of issues with stunting.

Children's education is under attack

Hundreds of schools have been looted, damaged, and destroyed or used for military purposes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Armed parties have also reportedly threatened, abducted, injured, and killed students and teachers. 

Conflict has impeded access to education across the country, and an estimated 2.9 million children were in urgent need of education at the end of 2016. In the Tanganyika region, a resurgence of intercommunal tensions and military operations resulted in the destruction of more than 300 schools as of July 2017, and UNICEF reported that damage to schools has forced 150,000 children out of school in the Kasai region. 

Listen to children from Democratic Republic of Congo discuss how the schools have fallen under attack by armed groups and how the 'Safe Schools Declaration' has made a difference in their lives.

Chidlren are being recruited as soldiers

Chidlren are being recruited as soldiers

Both boys and girls are recruited from schools or along school routes. 

Kadima*, 16, was forcibly recruited into an armed group with the promise of money and safety for his family. Drugged and fuelled by alcohol, he was told children were invincible against bullets. After seeing so many of his friends killed he escaped to the forest. Unable to afford school, Kadima helps his mother in the fields during the day. His recovery is being supported by the Save the Children through a Child-Friendly Spaces and he is being offered psychosocial support.

Girls are targets of sexual violence

Girls are targets of sexual violence

When girls are abducted, they are often taken specifically for sexual purposes.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, girls who are abducted or recruited and raped, sometimes for months, very often drop out of school afterwards. And, child recruitment and a lack of access to education are mutually reinforcing – forced conscription limits girls’ access to education, while the inability to afford education leads some girls to join armed groups instead. 

In some areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, rape and sexual violence against women and girls are commonplace as weapons of conflict. Children as young as 12 risk social taboos of birth control to avoid falling pregnant to their assailants.

Children are vulnerable to rapidly-spreading disease

Conflict affects families’ mobility and, in turn, their access to proper healthcare. With high rates of malnutrition, which lowers immune systems, and such a vast population living in relatively remote areas, communicable diseases are rife in Democratic Republic of Congo. This often has tragic results for families. 

Watch how Save the Children is responding to Democratic Republic of Congo’s 10th Ebola outbreak here.

You can read more about how Ebola is affecting children in the Democratic Republic of Congo in our story, Confronting Ebola

Cholera has reached epidemic levels

Right now, in the province of Kasai Oriental, cholera is at an epidemic level. Children are being left orphaned by this horrific disease. When a child living in extreme poverty loses one or both parents, they are immediately put in a situation of extreme vulnerability. 

Orphaned children – who have no one looking out for them – are often targets for abuse, including sexual abuse, exploitation and child labour.

Children too are falling victim to the disease. Cholera can kill a child within a day, particularly in Democratic Republic of Congo, where its young, often-malnourished body, simply does not have the strength to fight the disease off.

1. Source:
*Names have been changed to protect identity

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